Download for FREE old Usborne books – Including How to Make Computer Controlled Robots

Its been a really long time since I blogged anything on here, but here is something that I found the other day that I really wanted to share.

Usborne, the publisher of many child oriented technology books have published some of their old books on their website to download as PDFs

No need to read further if you don’t want. Follow the link below, and scroll down the bottom of the page. No login, no hoops to jump through.


There are a few books on their site regarding BASIC for early home computers, but the book that got my attention is the book pictured above, How to Make Computer Controlled Robots. I remember borrowing this book from the library as a kid, and I really wanted to make one of the robots that are outlined in the book.

I never did make the robot of course, but now I have a digital copy of the book, I’m tempted to give it a go. It will go on my list of things to do some day.

Extra Arduino Boards

Since posting my original post, I’ve added a few extra boards to my collection, including:

LCD Display board:

LCD Display

This one was almost redundant by the time I got it, as I had already made my own board with an LCD screen.

This one, however includes an array of buttons which would make creating, and navigating menus in the Arduino easy. From recollection, the buttons are interfaced via a couple of analogue pins, in order to save the digital ones for the LCD, and/or other uses.

Serial MAX323 adapter:

Max232 board

Initially, I was disappointed with the fact that Arduinos don’t seem to like talking to serial devices directly. A bit of research revealed that using one of these MAX323 chips, which you can get on a circuit board, ready to power and wire, from eBay nice and cheap. I am hoping this will make it possible to communicate with devices which are controlled by RS232. I’m somewhat interested in trying to use use the arduino as an audio visual controller.

Motor shield:

Motor Controller

Arduinos make awesome robot brains according to the internet, and what better way to provide motive power to a robot than a motor shield from eBay as well. These appear to be knock offs of other motor controllers, but hopefully the one I bought will provide useful. I just need to work out its specs, and how to use it.

from recollection, it has 2 servo controller connections, and the possibility for 2 stepper motors, or two forward / reverse motors (or I think 4x forward motors? not sure on that one…)



Measuring motion means you can make all kinds of motion controlled devices, or measure your devices movement. That sounds like fun. Might be handy to team up with the motor control shield or something, to help control a robot of some form. This one is I2C, so it will be a test in working out how to use I2C networks.

So, hopefully they should yield some entertainment. One thing I’m finding is the amount of different Arduino boards there are out there. If you think of something, there probably is already a board out there to do what you want to do. If you want to make something, almost all you need to do is piece the system together, and then program it. That is pretty cool if you ask me!


On board with Arduino

Finally, I’ve bought myself an Arduino.
I went with the relatively new Arduino Leonardo. I’m not sure if that was a good idea or not now, but it seems good so far. The Leonardo is slightly different in its underlying design. It has one processor that works as both the usb/serial converter, and as the main processor. I think for the most part, it shouldn’t be a problem, but when you reset the board, you loose your serial port on the laptop, and have to wait until it reconnects before you can do anything. This can cause problems if you are monitoring its serial output on your computer (for debugging etc…)

Pin wise, the Arduino Leonardo seems to be pin compatible with other Arduinos, however it does have some extra pins (such as the i2c pins on the digital side). That can be kind of a pain, as it means prefab prototype shields might not have all the pins you need to use this Arduino board to its full advantage.


When I first got the Arduino delivered, I didn’t have any shields to fit it, so I got to work hacking together a bit of a toy shield. Pictured below, the shield has an LCD screen, 2 buttons, an IR LED, and an IR receiver  the mono 3.5mm jack on the bottom isn’t actually connected to anything at the current moment, but was for the possibility of connecting IR transmitters, as used in Audio Visual installations for controlling DVDs, TVs etc…

Using Ken Sherriffs IR transmitter library allows this board to be able to send, and/or receive IR remote commands.


Eventually, my order of protoshields arrived. These things are all over ebay, and usually come with headers and a little breadboard that piggy backs onto it. I didn’t really want the breadboard, just the straight PCB. I eventually found them at DealExtreme for $2.30 without anything other than the PCB. I bought 3 for starters.

I wouldn’t mind getting some of the piggy back headers for them at some point, as that would allow me to use several different PCB’s at once, in a little stack.


I also put together a quick 9v battery with plug for the Arduino, so I can power it away from the computer. Pictured below is my little collection of  Arduino boards. You can see another veroboard I have put together with IC headers for legs, and the rest of my prototype shields


I have since had a few more bits and pieces delivered, but those will have to wait until the next installment.

Big Trak Jr

So, I just got my hands on a Big Trak Jr from Thinkgeek.

The BigTrak Box

The Big Trak boxed up. Let me open it already!

The Big Trak was a programmable toy robot which was released in 1979. Over 30 years on, and now we see the second coming. A smaller version, which I believe has many of the original features, and at least one extra one – the accessory port.

I never owned an original Big Trak, I don’t even know if they were sold here in Australia. I bet they were expensive too. A heck of a lot more than the $24.99 +pp I paid for the Jr. I wish I did though, these things are pretty awesome. At that price, they are not just great value, they are a viable hackable robotics platform. If you don’t want to keep the controls, scrap it all, add a PicAxe or a small arduino, and bazinga!, a fully programmable autonomous robot!

the bigtrak with the top unscrewed

I hadn't owned it for 24 hours before I'd unscrewed the top! I've just got to see whats inside!

After less than a day of playing with it, the curiosity got the better of me, so I decided it was time to bring out the screwdrivers to see whats inside. I had 2 goals,

1) Have a look inside
2) Try to work out how the accessory port works

bigtrak accessory port

Here is the underside of the accessory port. The whole port comes out easily just by removing those two screws!

6 Philips head screws was all it took to get the case off, and straight away I liked what I saw. There was just 2 wires that went to the accessory port. A black one, and a red one, and they connected to a standard 3.5mm TS (mono headphone) connector. It didn’t look like there was going to be any fancy communication protocols, or proprietary connectors to deal with! They couldn’t have made this easier!

A little probing with a multimeter showed that it was outputting a bit below 4v. I Didn’t measure the battery voltage to see if it’s outputting full battery power thru to the port or not, that will be something I should test later on.

So knowing I have a simple on /off port, I hooked up a LED. First by touching the LED to the terminals on a TS jack that I had plugged into the port, then after I worked out which way to connect the LED, I soldered the LED onto the TS jack, so it stuck neatly out the top of the jack cover when it was screwed on

And here is the little LED on a plug which I made, and how it is wired.

Then it was testing time. Plugging in the LED, and turning the Big Trak on, I programmed in a trigger output, and the LED lit up just as it was supposed to.


Now I’ve gotten the LED to work, what’s next for me? some other kind of device. Maybe a motor? a DIY rocket launcher? extra machine guns? The choice is almost unlimited. I’ll have to see what I have kicking about.

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Hackerspaces. In canberra?

I’ve always been intrigued by hacker spaces & similar community based workshops. In this day and age its getting harder and harder for someone to have their own workshop.

I had been under the impression that there wasn’t much around here in australia, I guess its a habbit I’ve fallen into, just assuming that there isn’t the population base availiable here in australia, and even closer to home, canberra, to support these kinds of places.I thought, at best there would be some “men’s sheds” about somewhere. If the small town my parents are from can support one of these, then surely so can canberra. The only problem with these are they generally seem to be run and populated by older men, who have retired.

I have nothing against older people, but I’m not quite ready to become one just yet.

Make, Hack, Void Logo

However, I just googled hackerspaces in australia, and up popped A Hackerspace, right here in Canberra.

They have a shop, tools, people. Sounds good. talking to other people can spawn ideas, and get you motivated to work. Access to tools you don’t have access to otherwise is also very handy, and a nice area to work is also a plus.

It sounded pretty cool, until I realised to become an “associate member”, it costs $50/month, with a 6 month buy in (so $300). Sure it has a fair bit to offer, but I don’t think I can justify that much cost. I’m better off injecting that money into stuff of my own. for 6 months, I’d rather own a new welder, or some other tools, or a whole pile of steel or something….

Sure, there are casual memberships available, for $5/day, but you don’t get to use the bigger tools I’d be somewhat interested in using. maybe one day I’ll drop by one of their workshops or something to check it out, who knows, maybe the people are nice, and knowledgable, and it would be worth it.

I think I’m going to keep doing things on my own for the time being. At the moment I’m more interested in working with metal instead of electronics (does anyone else have too many interests, and have to cycle thru them, or is it just me?). I think I’ve got enough tools, skills and junk to keep myself entertained for a while.

Quick Electronics Prototyping / playing

Here on my blog, I had an idea of individual  electronic modules which can connect to a microcontroller (in my case, the picaxe microcontroller) . My little series never went too far, with switches, LEDs, A speaker, potentiometers, Temperature probes, and the picaxe 08m and the picaxe 18

Now SeeedStudio have used a similar idea in their Electronice Brick kits and  you can buy the ready made kit from Little Bird Electronics for AU$60, or straigh from the SeedStudio Store. If you go to the seedstudio store, they have many addon components for the kit

seed   studio electronic bricks starter kit

Above is what you get in the starter kit. It makes a neat way go get started, but i’m sure it won’t take long for you to want to expand your collection

And just to make things doubly clear,  I have no involvement in this product at all, they just had the same idea and ran with it, ending up with a great looking product. Check it out, its a great idea for beginners

Camcorder Microphone Adapter

This is my latest project. It is a converter box that converts the 3.5mm stereo microphone input on my camcorder, into some common interfaces, Such as XLR, RCA, and dual 3.5 mono plugs.

Specifically, the driving idea was driven by the XLR inputs, and I was contemplating making a simple cable with 2 XLRs, but I decided to go with the jiffy box and extra inputs for flexiblilty

 drawing of the converter

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