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!


Cricut Cutter With USB, it can be done!

NOTE: recently Make The Cut has been updated, and supposedly no longer will support the plugin.

I suspected this day would come eventually.

Quote from the Make The Cut website:

“On 8/17/2012 a new version of Make The Cut! was released (version 4.1.1) which no longer allows the Cricut Plug-in to be loaded. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

One possibility (which is untested) is to buy a licence, and find an old version of the installer. I don’t know if this will work or not, but if someone tests it out, let me know. I’m sure others would like to know.


Back to the original article:

The Cricut is a cool little cutting machine, aimed at the Craft/Scrapbooking market. It looks like a printer, but is more like a pen plotter. If you saw my previous post, I bought one for my loving wife Diana for her birthday.

Cricut Personal Cutter

The Cricut comes with very minimal usability out of the box, and requires you to buy ridiculously expensive cartridges. You can get cartridges on amazon from about $25 (pretty cheap) but most are much more than that. With postage on top of that (to Australia, makes it expensive). Locally, You’re looking at more like $60 per cartridge for a cheap one. There must be a better way!

On the back of the machine, there is a USB port. Sweet. surely there is some software out there that can make good use of the cutter, and make it much cheaper to use?

Well, there is, BUT……….

There is the Cricut Design Studio, which seems like a handy idea, and likely is in many ways, if you have a bunch of cartridges.

You see, the Cricut Design Studio requires you to have bought the cartridges that you want to use. You can’t print custom-made designs, or use fonts on your computer or anything, so you are really only marginally better off with this software. It does allow you to lay things out better than the basic interface you get just the machine.

Then, there was several of other pieces of software available such as Sure Cuts a Lot, and Make the Cut, which allowed you to use standard True Type fonts on your computer, as well as importing vector graphics from other software  to cut your own design of graphics.

Of course, the makers of the Cricut cutters didn’t like this, as for the price of a single cartridge, you could then use all the fonts and pictures out there on the internet, without ever having to pay the makers of the Cricut anything. It appears that they started sueing all the makers of this software, so now none of them work with the Cricuts any Longer.

Make The Cut

But, you are not out of luck just yet, I have worked out (with help from the internet)  how to make the Make the Cut program work once again with the Cricut!
You see, Make the Cut uses plugins to interface to the Cricut, and other different Cutting hardware. It seems all the makers have done to make the software incompatible is remove the Cricut driver dll from the application.

Some very awesome people out there have discovered that, by putting the dll file in the plugin folder for the current Make the Cut download, you can still use the software.

Make it Happen

First,I should note, that I was lucky enough that the firmware on the Cricut was already up to date, so i didn’t need to upgrade ours. You may need to upgrade firmware, you apparently can do this with the demo of the Cricut Design Studio. A quick google should get you going in the right direction. I think Make The Cut! works with firmwares of 1.1 and above for the Cricut Personal. Your cricut will tell you the firmware version on the LCD screen when you turn it on.

First, with a standard printer style USB cable, plug the cricut into your computer. Windows will hopefully find and install the drivers for the cricut automatically. The cricut will appear as a usb to serial adaptor. When I first tried with my laptop, I had struggles, but eventually it seemingly sorted itself out somehow. My wife’s worked right away, and both laptops are windows 7. If it doesn’t install properly, I’m afraid you’ll have to do a bit of research online.You may need to download the drivers manually.

Download and install Make The Cut! (the demo will work, so you can test it all before you commit to the software).

Google “PCCPlugin.dll” and download the file to your computer. This is the driver for the cricut cutters. It should be out there for you to find. (edit update: try these links which have been provided in the comments: filedropper, filedropper(zipped), filefactory (zipped). these are not my files, so they may go down at some point)

Place the PCCPlugin.dll file in the plugin directory of Make The Cut (default will likely be c:\program files\Make the Cut!\Plugins).

Run the program. Now when you click on Cut Project With… you should be able to choose the ProvoCraft Cricut.

If this works for you and you haven’t already bought Make The Cut, I recommend buying it now. We chose to wait until we’d seen it working before buying it. In demo mode Make The Cut will work but anything cut will be cut with a big X thru it, making it pretty useless.

Now Enjoy using the hardware you own, in a way YOU like it.

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.

Continue reading

Robots & Things

I haven’t posted in a couple of weeks, so I thought I’d put in a post of interesting things

In my RSS reader this morning there was post from, which was actually a link to a BBC article about robots working in the Fukushima Nuclear plant post Disaster.

IRobot Packbots

Some of the Packbots being used at the site

I wasn’t surprised with the usual tracked robots like the Irobot Packbots, which are usually seen on bomb squad duty,  or the Talon’s which i believe are military reconnoissance robots, usually pictured with an array of varying weaponry.

What I did find interesting were remotely operated Bobcat skid steer loaders. they were very interesting, and very cool. They are decked out with an array of camera and control hardware, which allow it to be operated remotely. According to the video I have linked to below, the hardware doesn’t take long to fit, and the loader can still be used by an operator if needed.

remote operated skid steer loaders

Skid Steer Loaders retrofitted with Remote operation hardware. very cool, and very handy in highly radioactive environments

I also found the method of controlling the bobcats rather entertaining, an Xbox 360 controller connected to a laptop. Its shown in the article linked above, and a little more is said at the Discover Magazine blog . Previously, I have read that it is common in this day and age to use mass-produced controllers like this, It is supposed to lessen the learning curve, and reduce the necessity to R&D a new control system.

Xbox 360 controller controlling the bots

Xbox 360 controller controlling the bots

Another shot of the laptop / xbox controller

Another shot of the laptop / xbox controller

The Youtube video below has some shots of the above robots in action:

And while doing a little more reading, I have come across another robot which is being used, the Monirobo. The Monirobo is a Japanese designed and built robot. As the name implies, I believe the Monirobo is primarily a monitoring robot, with radiation, heat and humidity sensors, as well as 3D camera. It is heavily shielded to allow it to operate in high radiation areas (the whole idea of this robot!), and weighs in at over half a tonne.  There is an articulated arm, which from my limited reading, is primarily for collecting samples, not moving rubble or the likes

the Japanese monirobo

The Japanese Monirobo

The disaster Japan is facing is tragic, and anything that can be done to help keep the repair teams safe is important. I am somewhat surprised there aren’t more japanese robots in use, I guess most of the robots developed in Japan are designed for the more glamorous / domestic robotic tasks.