Programming the Floppy-disk Archiving Machine

I used the nxt-python-2.0.1 library to drive the floppy-disk archiving machine. I don't see value in releasing the full source code for driving the machine as it is very tied to the details of the robot build, but there are a few points of interest to highlight. (The fact that the code also happens to be 200 lines of ugliness couldn't possibly have influenced that decision in anyway.)

Overview of nxt-python

The library provides an object oriented API to drive the NXT brick. First, you get the brick object like this:

import nxt.locator
brick = nxt.locator.find_one_brick()

Motor objects are created by passing the motor and the NXT port it is connected to:

import nxt.motor
eject_motor = nxt.motor.Motor(brick, nxt.motor.PORT_B)

Motors can be run by a couple of methods, but the method I used was the turn() method. This takes a powerlevel, and the number of degrees to rotate the motor. The powerlevel can be anything from -127 to 127, with negative values driving the motor in reverse. The higher the powerlevel, the faster the motor turns and the harder it is to block, but it will also not stop exactly where you wanted it to stop. Lower powerlevels give you more exact turns, but won't overcome as much friction. So I found that it worked best to drive the motor at high powerlevels to get a rough position, then drive it at lower powerlevels to tune its position. To determine how far the motor actually turned, I used motor.get_tacho().tacho_count. That value then allowed me to drive slowly to the correct position from the actual position achieved.

When a motor is unable to rotate as far as instructed at the powerlevel specified, it will raise an nxt.motor.BlockedException. While typically you should probably avoid having that happen, I found that by designing the robot to have a "zeroing point" that I could drive the motor to until it blocked, I could recalibrate the robot's positioning during operation and increase the reliability of the mechanism.

Implementation Details

In order to keep the NXT from going to sleep, I setup a keepalive with brick.keep_alive() every 300 seconds. I believe the NXT brick can be configured to avoid needing that. In the process, I discovered that the nxt-python library does not appear to be threadsafe; sometimes the keep_alive would interfere with a motor command and trigger an exception.

I structured my code so that I had a DiskLoadingMachine object with a brick, load_motor, eject_motor, and dump_motor. This allowed me to build high-level instructions for the DiskLoadingMachine such as stage_disk_for_photo().

Another thing I did was to sub-class nxt.motor.Motor and override the turn() method to accept a either a tacho_units or a studs parameter. This allowed me to set a tacho_units-to-studs ratio, and turn the motor the right number of turns to move the ram a specified number of studs.

Room for Improvement

I think there is room to enhance nxt-python's implementation of Motor.turn, or to add a Motor.smart_turn. The idea here is to specify the distance to rotate the motor and have the library drive the motor as quickly as it can while still making the rotation hit the exact distance specified. Depending on implementation, it might make sense to have the ability to specify some heuristic tuneables determined by a one-time calibration process. Drive trains with significant angular momentum, gearlash, or variable loadings may make it difficult to implement in the general case.

Alternatively, perhaps Motor.turn_to() would be a more robust approach: provide an absolute position to turn the motor to. It should then have a second parameter with three options: FAST, PRECISE, and SMART. FAST would use max power at the cost of probably overrunning the target, while PRECISE would turn more slowly and get to the correct position, and SMART would ramp up the speed to get to the correct position without overrunning it at the cost of a more variable rate. The implementation would also imply operating with absolute positions rather than specifying how much to turn the motor. There can be some accumulation of error, so such an implementation would need a method for re-zeroing the motor.

Making the library threadsafe is an obvious step for making this library more robust.

A default implementation of a keep-alive process for the brick object would also be worth considering.


Despite the threading issue, the nxt-python library was very useful and helped me quickly create a functioning robot. If you're looking to use a real programming language to drive a tethered NXT, nxt-python will serve you well.


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