BY JOHN BAICHTAL
Regular readers know that we at MAKE have a deep and abiding love of Lego. In fact, searching on “Lego” reveals about 1,350 posts on the blog. For many of us, building with the bricks was one of our earliest experiences as a maker.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that we have adapted our maker experiences to include Lego. Examples include Brian Jepson’s parametric printable Technic beam and the Universal Connector Kit, the latter consisting of printable attachments combining Lego, K’nex, Tinker Toy, Duplo, and Lincoln Log hardware so you can connect the sets together.
Electronics haven’t been neglected, with Bricktronics shields adding Arduino functionality to Mindstorms projects and the BrickPi serving a similar role for the Raspberry Pi.
One example on the robotics end of the spectrum is Makeblock. It’s a robust, logical, and easy-to-use robotics set made by an open-source Shenzhen startup. Their Kickstarter campaign was a tremendous success, with over 600 backers contributing $185,000 to get the company started.
The core of the set is a series of durable aluminum beams, anodized either blue or gold. On the surface they resemble other aluminum construction sets, but they have a couple of cool features that put them past the typical T-slot beam. First, they have threaded holes on the ends of the beams, and there is a groove running the length (you can see it in the photo on the right) that is also threaded, so you can screw a M4 bolt anywhere along the beam.
Where does Lego factor in? In addition to the threaded attachment points, the beams also feature non-threaded holes that have the same spacing and diameter as Lego Technic beams. This makes it incredibly easy to add Lego parts to your project. In the case of my tank-tracked robot (the photo at the very top of this post) I made the chassis out of Makeblock beams, with Makeblock motors and tank treads. However, I knew I wanted to add Lego parts so I added a lattice of Technic beams on top, screwed into the aluminum with M4 socket-headed screws, which are Makeblock standard. I built up a little platform of Technic beams, then added a Bricktronics 6-AA mounting plate with battery holder.
At this point I could have used Makeblock’s electronics parts which include an Arduino clone, bluetooth modules, IR receiver, motor bridge, etc. Interestingly, Makeblock tries to eliminate the tangle of wires by creating a shield of RJ11 plugs, so you can just use the cables to connect to their components. They also sell adapters so you can attach Molex and similar cables to the RJ11s.
However, I wanted to use a Lego Mindstorms ultrasonic sensor, so I chose an Arduino UNO and a Bricktronics Shield. This shield has plugs for 2 motors and 4 sensors, and uses Mindstorms’ custom RJ12 wires, which feature an off-center tab. I added a Lego beam at the front of the robot and connected the ultrasonic sensor to the shield with a Mindstorms wire.
Check out a slideshow of some of MakeBlock’s cool components:
Motor connectors and other connector plates.
The Lego Standard — a demonstration of the product’s popularity: it inspires complimentary products, making it easy to mix and match the best of each set in order to make the project you want to make.