As you might know from a previous post I want to put Sidbot on a ball. It must be able to balance on top of it without falling of. If it knows how to do that it must also learn to wander around. There are a number of things I must accomplish to reach this ultimate goal. Here I’ll describe what has been done and what must be done. In later posts I might zoom in on some of the tasks.

The platform

Sidbot has been built. You can see photo’s of it on previous posts. I am able to change the angle of the wheels, this enables me to adapt Sidbot to different ball sizes. I also made a spreadsheet that calculates the exact ball size needed for a given setup.

The ball

I bought a fitness ball with a diameter of 65 cm. My guess is that the bigger the ball the easier it is to balance it. Bigger balls will also be heavier and more difficult to get in motion, having more inertia. The ball also has a flat sticky surface that give grip to the wheels. It is a bit bouncy though.

The sensor

To balance on a ball Sidbot must know what is up and when it is tilting over. A lot of NXT based balancing bots measure the distance to the ground for tilt information. This technique cannot be used for Sidbot, it is a long way from the ground and the ball is in the way when looking at the ground. Therefore I will use gyro sensors to get tilt information.
I need at least two gyro’s, one to detect tilt in the y direction
(rear to front) and one to detect tilt in the x direction (left to
right). I also want to measure the rate of turn around the z axis (down to up) . This is not needed for balancing but for keeping a fixed heading when it is moving. Currently I just have the Hitechnic gyro sensor. This measures rate of turn in just one direction. Instead of buying two more of these I will built my own sensor that takes care of all three axes. This occupies less space and sensor ports, has a higher sampling rate, might be more accurate and also includes a 3 axis accelerometer. It is the IMU digital combo board from Sparkfun.
By chance this sensor fits exactly into the slide on the inside of the lego sensors. I will sacrifice my (never used) sound sensor to house it. Thus far my attempts to use this sensor with the NXT have been unsuccessful. The problem is the different voltage level of the sensor (3.3V) and the odd pull ups required by the NXT. I also lack experience with electronics. But I won’t give up that easy.

The PID controller

To balance on the ball Sidbot needs to adjust its position constantly. To do so sensory information from the gyro’s has to be translated into motor commands. For this I will use a PID controller. PID controllers are
very easy to program (that goes for number two and later) but they are hard to tune. And every time the controller fails Sidbot will hit the deck quite hard. So I want a quick way to find the optimal settings for the PID controller. My idea is to use a genetic algorithm to find the best settings. The algorithm works like this:

  1. Generate 10 random PID parameters.
  2. Try each of the PID parameters and measure how long
    Sidbot stays on the ball.
  3. Throw away the 5 least successful parameters.
  4. Duplicate the other 5 parameters but change them a little bit when duplicating.
  5. Start over at point 2.

This algorithm should run until a successful set of parameters is found. During Christmas holidays I developed as small function library that implement the steps mentioned above. I tested this library to find PID values for another controller that Sidbot uses. This PID is used to keep and adjust the heading of Sidbot. In the end this worked surprisingly well. But I also found out that it is not easy to quantify the success of a PID controller. Does it have to be fast, can it overshoot the desired position or not, etc?
I expect some difficulties with this in the future. However, now I got myself a good set of PID parameters for maintaining/adjusting the heading of Sidbot.

That’s my progress thus far.