Demonstrating again

Posted in General at 12:45 am by wouter

When we started this project, we defined our goals as designing a robust and interesting robot platform for research, education, and last but not least: for promotion. In that context, we have been demonstrating what Zeppy can do at two different events lately, which resulted in some nice pictures.

The first event was for in honour of our first-year-students at the AI department receiving their first 60 points, their propedeuse. Their parents were all invited to come and see for themselves what their children actually do all day, and we were there to show off Zeppy. Though we must admit, it had been a while since Zeppy actually flew, so some last-minute hardware changes had to be made.

But after that we were all set and ready to fly!

The second event was the open house the university held. All bachelors programs were there to promote what they’re doing, and Zeppy was there among other cool stuff, to show what AI can be like.

Both were really fun events and we were very happy that we could once again show our work.


Sort of completed

Posted in Hardware, General, Software at 3:03 pm by Joël

Wednesday was judgment day for the people at the Hanze University as that day signaled the ending of their 8 week project. Both Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering worked hard to complete a working Zeppy before the 13:00 deadline. And succeeded, Zeppy flied beautifully!

There are some parts that still need a finishing touch, like the printed circuit board(PCB) and helium balloon. But for the demo we replaced the PCB with a experiment board (breadboard) which we were able to lift with a slightly over-sized balloon. Below are some pictures of this historical day!

See the Zeppy Set on Flickr for more pictures!

In other news our, slightly outdated, article for the Dutch magazine for Artificial Intellgence (de Connectie) got published! Head over to their site to see how you can get a copy!

Also we’ve made great progress on the client-side. We’re now able to remote control Zeppy with a Joystick and have made a GUI to read and set the status of Zeppy. Below is a screenshot of this system we call Uplink!


Nearing Completion

Posted in Hardware, General, Software at 7:35 pm by Joël

Our cooperation with the Hanze University is coming to an end. We expect to integrate the fruits of 9 weeks of hard labour into a great product by the end of next week. It has been an awesome experience and I hope that the students from the Hanze University can only agree. Out of nothing there will be a robotic zeppelin, which was not an easy task. Finding the right material for the helium envelope proved to be extremely hard and even after acquiring the desired material, coated mylar, working with it was also problematic. The imagination of the engeneering students was taxed with finding a suitable way of sealing the mylar envelope. Quite a few unorthodox methods of sealing have been explored and, ultimately, rejected. At the moment they are trying a combination of a special mylar glue and aluminium tape, which seems to be working. As for the gondola part the finalized blueprints are being sent to a 3D printer which was made available to us.

On the electrical engineering side of the story we were faced with the failure of our Gumstix module. This was a setback which was quickly overcome by buying a new Gumstix and Robostix. However easy this simple switching trick might seem it pulled some nasty tricks on us. There is no documentation on both components, not organized anyway. So for the electrical engineers this meant browsing the internet for hours to get the system back to its original state. Not an easy task when taking into account that the platform had switched from Buildroot to Open Embedded rendering most our i2c modules useless. The lack of i2c modules seemed to be easily fixed by compiling them from the available repositories, which were unavailable. We were able to get the system running again, however, and the AVR(a type of integrated circuit) software almost immediately worked its magic. The AVR will communicate to a custom Printed Circuit Board(PCB) which will provide access to the sensors and actuators. It’s a strange thing realizing that you’re communicating through a Bluetooth connection to a computer chip, talking to another computer chip which is making motors run. At a distance!

While the students at the Hanze University were developing the hardware, we focused on creating good software for developing the robots’ behavior. On the client-side we now have a functional graphical user interface, written in Java, which is able to sent and receive UDP(User Datagram Protocol) messages to and from Zeppy. On Zeppys’ side we are now able to receive these messages and parse them appropriately into C++ objects. It now only seems to be a matter of tying the generated C++ objects to the i2c-layer and we have a remote controlled blimp again! We’ve also started working on a simulation environment which will be able to simulate Zeppy’s behavior on a basic level and replay Zeppy’s logfiles so we can analyze them.

When Zeppy is completed the fun for us will really begin. We’re considering multiple techniques for autonomous behavior ranging from simple reactive control (like Braitenberg vehicles) to complex Simultaneous Localization and Mapping(SLAM) systems integrated in a hybrid control architecture. Keeping the zeppelin stable in an ever changing environment will also provide the necessary challenges and we are eager to try various control systems like PID-control or recurrent neural networks.

Of course we will flood this blog with pictures and video’s when we are able to show the brand new Zeppy but for now we have some fun videos and pictures!

Prototype Envelope

Prototype Envelope

Testing variable motor speeds using Pulse Width Modulation(PWM)


Cooperation with the Hanze University

Posted in General at 5:32 pm by Margreet

We have decided not to improve, but to rebuild most of the zeppelins’ hardware. To do this, we have called in the help of the Hanze University Groningen. The departments of Electrical engineering and Mechanical engineering are willing to cooperate; they have agreed to let the zeppy-team guide a group of approximately eight students, four from each department. We will lead these students towards designing and building the hardware and the low-level software (the implementation of the API).

From february until april these students will build those elements of the zeppelin for which we lack the technical knowledge, like the balloon, the gondola and the steering system.

The progress and outcome of this cooperation will be posted later on this website.


A new Zeppy team

Posted in General at 12:08 pm by Tessa

The current members of the Zeppy team have been working on the autonomous flying robot for a year now (Zeppy actually had his birthday last Friday!). We are now at that moment in our lives that it is time to graduate and we are all going to do this in the United States! Of course we would not want Zeppy to end up catching dust in a dark corner of the robot laboratory, so fortunately we are now in the position to introduce a new Zeppy team! Dirk, Joel, Margreet and Wouter can not wait to start a new project with Zeppy and we think their fresh enthusiasm will do our flying robot a lot of good. We wish them the best of luck and lots of fun!

The new team, Zeppy and us:


(f.l.t.r: Tessa, Jaldert, Tijs, Matthijs, Dirk, Joel, Zeppy, Margreet and Wouter)



Posted in General at 12:54 pm by Tessa

Last week we were invited by Jan Hut from ITC Platform Noord to let Zeppy fly at the CeBIT, a huge IT fair in Hannover. We were very happy to travel to Germany and show our robotic blimp to the world!

Without exaggeration, it was a huge succes! We came in contact with many interesting people and Zeppy was a real attraction, he made a lot of friends in the future park.

Below are some pictures and a movie!

The Future Park at CeBIT:

Tijs and Matthijs handing out AI flyers and baby-sitting Zeppy:
AI flyers

The big screen with our software:

The Holland stand:

Zeppy flying:

Team picture:

Zeppy was filmed by the makers of the CeBIT dvd!:

A video impression:

Zeppy and the JJC

Posted in General at 12:00 pm by Matthijs

To show what can be done with AI, our studentgroup Cover organised a small colloquium for the first year students of Artificial Intelligence and Informatics, as well as other interested people. This was called the JJC, which is a Dutch abbreviation for the lower-years colloquium.

And guess what?

Zeppy was the subject of this colloquium! We had prepared a short 30 minute presentation to show what the project is about and how it all worked, which was held by Matthijs. You can view the slides of this presentation at the end of this blogpost!
And of course we held a demonstration, flying over the heads of the students, showing the software and hardware.

Despite a somewhat low turn-up there were a lot of enthousiastic responses as well as quite a few interesting discussion points!
It’s nice to see people react so positive and interested to the things we do, it keeps us focused as well! ;)

View the slides of the presentation by clicking here


Opening Bernoulliborg

Posted in General at 5:21 pm by Tessa

Today, the new building (Bernoulliborg), that houses the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence departments of the University of Groningen, was officially opened. Zeppy was invited to fly around in the main hall! Everything went very well and he flew around for about two hours. The audience responded very positively and everybody was enthusiastic so we were justifiably proud!

A video impression of this day:

And some pictures:

Zeppy BasestationWatching and controlling Zeppy from the ground.

Our very own Zeppy-spot in the main hall.

Zeppy sure draws a lot of attention!

Who wants to touch Zeppy?

Floating in a freaky environment.
It’s lonely up There.

More Pictures..



Posted in General at 2:27 pm by Tijs

Hi there! Long time no see.. We have been rather busy (with Zeppy among other things), and we decided to focus on improving Zeppy, instead of updating the weblog.

What have we been up to, then?

New gondola
We’ve built a new home for Zeppy’s electronics. We built a gondola which contains the camera, motors, the gumstix computer, and the motor drivers. Underneath the gondola there is room for the battery. We use the lid of the butter-packaging as a dock on the zeppelin, so we can easily attach and detach the hardware from the balloon.

Zeppy Gondola

New motors
The motors that we borrowed from the toy-blimp just were not up to the task, since they were very noisy but not very powerful, and the rotors had a habit of coming loose in mid-flight.
So we bought three new EDP-20 motors with fitting rotors from a local shop. Since these motors are often used for model airplanes they are actually too powerful for our needs, but thanks to a little voltage regulation circuitry we can now easily configure the power of the motors.

Zeppy flies.. Beautifully!
New gondola, new motors, some programming, and.. Zeppy is airborne! - Even better: The steering is now very direct and responsive. For the first time, we can really fly our home-made blimp, and make it go wherever we want it to go.

Us looking at a flying zeppy.
Docking station
One of the motors is pointing downwards, and every time that zeppy lands or stands, he’s standing on this motor. To spare this motor, we’ve built a little ‘docking station’ for Zeppy. He looks very happy in his new home!

New balloon with logo
The university is enthusiastic, and we’ve been approached for some demonstrations in the near future, so we’ve decided to make a new better-looking balloon, with a logo on it.

We’ve got a new robot lab!
Our AI-department recently moved to a shiny new location, which houses a brand new robot-laboratory. Moving our delicate hardware and accessories was a bit problematic, but thankfully everything arrived safely. We had some funny looks riding our helium-filled canister to our new home!
The new robot-laboratory is large enough to merrily fly a zeppelin around. We can now fully appreciate our new motors, Zeppy can approach amazing speeds! The nasty sprinkler But, as it is with every change there are also downsides to our new playground, because all new buildings have to fulfill local fire-department regulations, meaning that they have to have sprinklers in every room.
Have you ever looked closely at a sprinkler? Have you seen the nasty sharp edges? They are sharp enough to cut right through an unsuspecting Zeppy.

We are still working on solving this problem, together with the building managers.

Sonar Sensor
In order to get a good measure of Zeppy’s height, we decided that we wanted to outfit Zeppy with a sonar sensor (Devantech SRF02). The sensor is amazingly light, weighing in on only 4.5 grams. We have already done all the soldering, and we are now working on reading the I2C data that the sonar supplies, which is somewhat tricky.

Basic sensor-motor coupling
We have created a lot of filters for the camera-images, which all output features. These features are based on motion detection and color-space information, for example.
Using the machine learning package WEKA, we extracted some basic rules as to when the zeppelin is flying to low to the ground. Applying these rules in the brain of Zeppy, will hopefully lead to a step closer to making Zeppy autonomous.

Zeppelin on other planets

And last but not least we made a nice movie of a zeppy roaming on an imaginary planet


It works!

Posted in General at 8:10 pm by Tessa