Show your driving skills

At last years R2UK event, the driving course was introduced. Originally by Colin Barker and Lee Towersey, built out of wood with 3d printed bumpers it went down a storm. It got rolled out a few times over the course of the year and I added the times to the MOT site.

I’m not one to let things lie tho. Times were manually entered into a spreadsheet, with any penalties added in by hand.

Not only that, the course took quite a while to strip down and put up due to all the power cables needed for the bumpers and gates.

This was where I come in. I was sure that I could help streamline the process and it was a nice project to work on. Along with my work, Mark Leigh and his brother started working on rebuilding the course out of aluminium box section to make things a bit sturdier.

I at least wanted to remove the need for all the cables going to the sensors, as this was a big pain in the setup, and was a bit of a mess. Whilst I was at it I came up with the idea that we could easily make them wireless so that when they’re triggered it automatically reports back to a central hub.

From there the ideas expanded! I didn’t want to have to redesign and reprint all the parts so everything had to reuse the physical bits. A Raspberry Pi would be used as a central hub to keep track of the times.

In the end I used a Wemos D1 Mini for all the sensors, as they were cheap and had more than enough I/O pins for what was needed. Both the bumpers and the slalom gates have the same electronics in them. The timing gates that start/stop the clock were microswitches but had to be reset each run so I switched these for ultrasonic range finders.

Finally, the clock got a major upgrade. Initially it just sent a signal to the Pi to say that the clock had started, but I quickly ran into latency issues. Due to this, the main timer for everything is not the Pi but the big clock itself. The timing gates are hardwired in and when they are triggered the clock sends the time back to the Pi in its API call.

So the Pi is using the same Flask python module that r2_control is using, I was already fairly familiar with it and it made creating an API very easy. The Pi is responsible for displaying and storing all the details about the runs, with Pi Zeros being used to display the various pages on monitors around the course.

As a final touch, I went really fancy! To register what droid and driver are about to do the course, they can now swipe an RFID tag. I built a simple reader with screen so that once the droid is ready to start they just swipe their tag over the reader. At R2UK there were some issues with writing tags which have since been solved. Even better, the new Builders ID cards have RFID chips built in.

Video courtesy of Rob Howdle

It took a couple of hours to work out some bugs on the course, some my own fault and others hardware limitations (seems the Pi’s onboard wifi wouldn’t allow more than 10 clients) but I worked around them and after that the course seemed quite popular again. Just need to write some better documentation and program up everyone’s ID cards.

Next step is to add another type of sensor… a shock sensors. Some people started getting quite competitive and the course was starting to take a few knocks. So a couple of accelerometers will hopefully make it back into a driving accuracy course!

All code is in the Builder’s github repository:

https://github.com/uk-r2-builders-club/droid_driving_course

Dreamflight Invasion!

So, sleep patterns are screwed. I’m totally knackered. The list of repairs needed for R2 is rather long. Must mean I’ve been at a convention!

But not only a convention, I was also at a charity event for Dreamflight.

Dreamflight is a UK charity that changes young lives through taking children with a serious illness or disability, without their parents, on the holiday of a lifetime to Orlando, Florida.

Invasion 2018

The weekend actually started on Thursday morning with the usual game of tetris to fit everything in the car, followed by a fairly uneventful 5 hour drive down to London (well, Heathrow).

We got to the Renaissance hotel to discover the place had been taken over by police, blocking the way into the car park. Eventually we got to park up and discovered that it wasn’t because they’d heard there was a Starfury convention on with Eve Myles, but were there for the Royal Wedding going on that Friday.

R2 back at the Renaissance
R2 back at the Renaissance

After a quick checkin (done online, so only door keys needed) I dumped my luggage and went to unload R2. I hadn’t even got him out of the car when I had people coming up for photos! Of course, the hotel staff are used to him now and barely batted an eyelid when he came charging into the lobby.

We settled in for a chilled evening in the lobby with the other early bird convention attendees, with R2 entertaining the occasional visitor, before R2 went to bed (ie, the luggage store).

Friday was the typical lounging around the lobby waiting for people to arrive, and setting up for opening the convention. Whilst it was quite a quiet convention, the majority of the attendees were regular Starfury people, which always helps to make it a great weekend.

It was a cracking line up of guests from shows such as Dark Matter, Killjoys, Warehouse 13, and Torchwood. I went into the Meet and Greet that evening and got to chat with them all and I must say each one was absolutely awesome. All of them were up for a fun weekend and even came to party with us all a bit on the Saturday night.

Group shot with the guests of Invasion 2018
Group shot with the guests of Invasion 2018

I had the opportunity to get a photo with all the guests, tho of course I used my photo proxy instead and got what must be one of my all time favourite pictures for R2. Even better was that one of the guests, Jodelle, actually put a copy of the picture up on Instagram and said it was her favourite from the weekend! Eve didn’t seem to like being upstaged tho.

There are always guests who stand out at a convention that you would love to see again at another. In this case, every single one of them would be fantastic to have back, they were really that good!

Dreamflight

R2 and Dreamflight
R2 and Dreamflight

Now, on top of this I had something that was actually better. I was already planning on taking R2 down to Heathrow for Invasion, but then discovered that there was a charity event on at the Terminal 5 Hilton, Dreamflight.

The 99th Garrison had been invited down to participate in the sendoff of the kids going on their special holiday on the Sunday morning, so seeing as I was in the area I put my name down. A few weeks later, the R2 Builders forum had a listing put up with an invite from the Rebel Legion/UKG for going to the Hilton on the Saturday too, to meet the kids as they turn up there from all corners of the country. So I thought, why not?

R2 and I got there on the Saturday a little early, unloaded, and went to meet the rest of the Legion. Plenty of Rebels there, and a few of the evil Empire.

The buses with the kids started showing up just after midday, with police escorts. They certainly know how to make them all feel special. The next few hours flew by with many a photo being taken. Besides us, there were also a lot of police, police dogs, and even a couple of police horses (tho they didn’t actually come into the hotel!).

Finally the last bus dropped off its passengers, and the kids were sent off to their rooms to get some rest before the day of travelling on the Sunday. R2 went to sleep (in the Hilton luggage store – he likes variety) and I went back to the Renaissance.

Tight squeeze, but so much fun!
Tight squeeze, but so much fun!

Sunday was an early start, off back to the Hilton to meet up with the 99th Garrison and to take the kids to the airport. It was actually arranged for R2 to ride on the bus to the airport, which was so much fun!

With one of my arms wrapped around a post, and the other around R2 to stop him rolling around, we set off. What I wasn’t expecting was for it to be a police escorted convoy! We had police on bikes riding ahead (with various cuddly toys strapped to the back of their bikes) to stop traffic and give us a none stop ride straight through to a hangar at Heathrow airport. They went all out to make the kids feel extra special, waving and saluting as the buses all went by.

We pulled up at the hangar and carefully offloaded R2. Inside it was all laid out for each of the groups of kids, with a military marching band, more police dogs, and a great view of the plane out of the big hangar doors.

Need a navigator?
Need a navigator?

R2 had a go at conducting the band, tho I think Kylo did a better job with his big glowing stick. The actual conductor started playing the Imperial March tho, which R2 took offense at and may have tried to run him over! None of that Dark Side stuff for him!

99th Garrison
99th Garrison

More photos, lots of smiles, and even a few requests for autographs (going to have to think of something regarding that). Finally the kids all got onto the plane and were sent off with lots of waving, despite the rain. We dragged ourselves to the buses and headed back to the hotel to dekit and relax.

I was actually expecting this weekend to be a bit heart wrenching, bearing in mind the reason for Dreamflight, but the atmosphere generated was electric and has given me such a buzz.

A few more pics here.

Home

I’m finally home now. Starfury conventions are always fun and rewarding to work, but coupled with Dreamflight this has been such an awesome weekend. Thanks go out to 99th Garrison, Rebel Legion, and UKG for letting me come along with them. And of course, a massive shout out to the Dreamflight team. They all work so hard to organise and run this event, and whilst our work as part of the entertainment is finished, there are so many of them that are now looking after the kids in Florida, making sure they have the time of their life.

Looking forward to more charity events to raise money for next years flights, and hopefully I can make it back again to send them off.

Now back to R2 repairs!

 

 

 

 

Birmingham MCM, MOT, and Tier 2.

This weekend was R2’s first official outing with the UK R2 Builders. We were invited to attend Birmingham MCM Comic Con with the UK Garrison, an arm of the 501st cosplay group.

I loaded R2 into the car on Friday after work, and drove down to a hotel near the Birmingham NEC. Due to late booking of the hotel, I wasn’t really left much choice, and it showed.  Saturday was an early start so I tried for an early night so I was all set for a 7am start. That didn’t go quite to plan, nor did the hotel room shower. Still, fun and games at the hotel were just a blip on what promised to be a great weekend.

After driving round and getting lost in the maze that is the NEC, I finally saw a few other builders who were also trying to figure out where to go and its always better to be lost in a group than on your own.

Eventually we did find where to park, and where we were unloading and after a quick registration we started getting the droids into the building and set up on our stand.

First order of business was to get my droid a pass on his MOT. To be allowed at official events, and to get some Public Liability Insurance (you know, just incase I ‘accidentally’ run over a little darling who is poking R2 too much), R2 has to pass a club MOT and I have to show I can drive him. Its a really good idea, and adds a great level of professionalism to the whole event.

Thankfully, R2 passed, which meant he was free to roam around and entertain.

The Saturday of the event was extremely busy, with so many extra people showing up that we pretty much didn’t leave the stand. Not only that, but the UK Garrison couldn’t do their usual parade due to safety worries. Still, it didn’t really put a damper on things as people were constantly coming to the stand and being entertained by the droids.

It really is fantastic seeing the interactions that people of all ages have with R2. He isn’t just a remote controlled robot, he is an actual person to a lot of them, and I’m less of a driver and more of a puppeteer.

Then there are the Jawas. Damn things get everywhere!

Only kidding, the UK Garrison have a few Jawas in their midst, and they certainly get into character. It was so much fun getting R2 to play along with them and everyone around absolutely loved it. Even better when their wrangler started jangling keys to distract them and move them along. Bringing out the play in cosplay.

The day passed all too quickly, and we were soon packing up for the day and making our way back to our hotels. A few of us went out for a meal that night at a local hotel, and surprisingly the conversation wasn’t just about droids. Well, not quite anyway.

Another attempt at an early night and a bit more sleep was had, ready for a not quite so early morning on Sunday. The doors were opened for us at about 8:30am, and we wandered in to make sure the droids hadn’t got out over night.

Sunday was a little bit quieter, so a few of us managed to roam about the convention a bit more. I took R2 out on a number of jaunts through the day along the concourse infront of the halls where MCM was running. It was a great area to roll around, lots of people but not as packed as it was around the stalls and other areas.

It did take quite a long time to get from one end to the other, not because of the distance but because he was getting stopped every meter or so for photos, or to chat with me about him. R2 really does like his picture taken, much more so than I do.

We had a few more encounters with the Jawas, and some sneaky avoiding of imperial troops looking for droids but I managed to convince them that these weren’t the ones they were looking for. There was also a group of large feline types who seemed to take a great interest in R2 and got a little curious.

The UK Garrison do a troop on each day if possible, and thankfully they were able to do one on Sunday, not only that but R2 was allowed to join in. At 2pm sharp, we waited outside the UKG changing room, ready to tag onto the end of the parade. There were a lot of the UKG there, I thought the line coming out was never going to end, but it eventually did and R2 joined in. We did a basic loop of the event which took about 20 minutes, it was great fun even for someone like me who doesn’t like to be in the center of attention. Of course, R2 takes a lot of it off me.

So, you’d think that was the highlight of the weekend? Nope, as the event was drawing to an end, I noticed a load of rebel pilots gathering around at the stand next to us. Next thing I know, Anthony Daniels asked if he could borrow my droid for a photo shoot. Not really going to say no now, am I? He stuck around afterwards too and had a few other photos with some of the other droids too.

Sadly, the event drew to an end. We were rather tired by this point, me, the other builders, and even poor R2’s battery was starting to show some signs of tiredness. R2 got loaded back into my car (I really need a van!), and I set off on the 2 1/2 hour drive home. A quick take out once I was in, and then bed became too tempting.

Now that I’ve recovered however, I’m planning the next steps with R2. As well as the MOT to get insurance coverage, there is also a tier 2 option. Tier 2 means that your droid is effectively screen ready (maybe not screen accurate, R2 changes too much between the films and even between scenes in the same film!) and can be used in official Lucas/Disney functions.

This is another great thing about the R2 Builders club, we have tight bonds with Lucasfilm, and now Disney, and occasionally get asked to do some official events. Anyone who is active in the club and has a tier 2 droid can get the chance to do one of these events.

To this end, there is now a long list of issues on my github page that needs sorting to get tier 2 approval. After a weekend with other droids, and seeing what is possible, it has pushed my motivation up a level to improve the droid, and also given me direction. I’m going to stop going for the fancy stuff, and instead concentrate on getting R2 as solid as possible, and looking the part.

Python code to control an R2D2 (or other astromech) from a Raspberry Pi over i2c
Milestone: Tier 2
Issues: 2 open, 11 closed.

Make R2 more solid for shows, and aim for that Tier 2 classification (ready for LucasFilm)

So all in all, it was a really fun weekend. I don’t think the smile left my face during the entire event. I really can’t wait for the next big event with the builders.

Spectre Squad Photo Shoot

This morning, Spectre Squad had got access to the Preston Laser Quest arena for doing some photo shoots with everyone in their gear. R2 wasn’t going to miss out! Early start (for me), but no real problems. Car quickly loaded and off to Preston.

Got there a little early, and waited for the facilities to be opened, then the problems started…

Managed to get R2 through the door, just, and started wheeling him through to the changing room area so I could put him together properly and get him running.

Unfortunately, half way there his foot fell off. The center foot just decided it no longer wanted to be attached. This coupled with the fact that the main leg nuts weren’t tightened yet led to a very unstable droid. Unable to really move him anywhere, I had to get some help to lay him down, whilst I started figuring out if it was repairable or not.

Thankfully, it seemed there was no real damage, and just the main nuts had worked loose. Probably thanks to the nut rattling floor at Preston Guild Hall during the previous event. It still took a good twenty or thirty minutes to dismantle the foot, bolt it back in place, and reassemble it.

Ok, that was the fun for the event, right? Nope. I powered him up and tried to activate the controller. For some reason, there was no connection made. A bit more faffing with mobile phone hotspots and the laptop and I determined that the controller had just lost its pairing with R2. No problems, I’ll just re-pair.

Darn, need a mini-usb cable, and I’d not brought my bag o’ cables. Asking around, noone had one handy. Plenty of usb-micro, but no mini. Last ditch attempt was to ask the staff of the Laser Quest. To which I got presented a rats nest of cables, with the hope that what I wanted was in there.

Success! One fully functioning droid!

With all the drama over it was time for photos. First one was a full group shot outside. Not the easiest of things to do with cars driving by (we got a fair few honks and waves as they passed), but managed to get a decent shot or two

Spectre Squad, outside Preston Laser Quest and Escape Room

Then it was into the arena for various posed and group shots.

We eventually got turfed out as they started to get paying customers coming in, including a kids birthday party who got the added bonus of some Star Wars people attending! R2 did get a bit of a mauling from them, but he’s fairly tough for the most part.

It was a really enjoyable morning, despite the difficulties with R2. Was great meeting more of the Squad, and getting to know them a bit better. Hopefully I’ll be able to troop with them more often in the future, as their events are generally in the North West.

So, lessons learnt for next time? Well, first of all I think R2’s feet need a full overhaul, especially the center one. Fingers crossed I’ll be getting my new foot shells next month, and can start on an improved center wheel solution. I also need to make sure I’ve got the right cables with me. A usb-mini is already in my toolkit.

I also need to improve the options for diagnosing issues and connecting to him with my laptop. He will soon be getting a dedicated 3g connection and will be a wifi hotspot so I can connect directly with my laptop. Possibly also a VPN back to home.

Looking forward to my next event! 😀