National Robotics Week and “Hackerspaces in Space” Project

In honor of National Robotics Week, which was punctuated today in D.C. with a number of meetings organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International on Capitol Hill, I would like to mention a few robot-related opportunities at HacDC and in the surrounding area.

1. A few days ago in the The Daily Mail, you may have read about an enterprising young British man who took some beautiful pictures of the Earth from a regular digital camera sent upward by balloon. Well, HacDC is doing something very similar as part of an inter-hackerspace competition called “Hackerspaces in Space” to launch and recover a payload that takes a photograph of the Earth’s horizon. All individuals, including non-members of HacDC, are welcome to participate and assist us, and you can join the “Spaceblimp” mailing list by signing up here.

2. April 24 is Robotfest, a great yearly event at the National Electronics Museum in Linthicum, MD. This year, for the first time, it is an official “Mini-Maker Faire,” a type of event connected to Make Magazine which have become regular Woodstocks for tinkerers, hackers, and roboticists. HacDC will have a table, and we will likely organize carpooling to the event. If you would like to come along, please stay tuned on the listserv. It is a blast and fun for folks of all ages.

3. Today is the start of the national championship for the FIRST robotics competition in Atlanta, Georgia. It can be even watched online through the website. HacDC has a number of friends and members involved as mentors for FIRST, and we can likely lead you in the right direction if you are interested in helping. Also, if you are a FIRST parent or teacher who would like to brush up on your electronics, programming, or mechanical knowledge, HacDC would be a great place to come, ask questions, and absorb.

4. Finally, HacDC is generally an excellent place to learn about robotics. We have a great deal of useful tools and project fodder, and every Monday is “Microcontroller Monday,” a night where anyone can come to chat and learn about the brains behind most robotic systems. We encourage all to stop by and join us.

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Join us for Microcontroller Monday (March 22, 2010)

Microcontroller Monday is an informal weekly gathering at HacDC where electronics and microcontroller enthusiasts of all experience levels meet to advance and discuss current and future projects. The night is free and open to the public; feel free to stop by and bring your friends!

Things normally gear up around 7PM or so.

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Army Launches “Apps for the Army” Development Challenge (Todd Fine)

On March 3 at the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, Chief Information Officer of the Army, announced the launching of Apps for the Army, a broad web and mobile application challenge (explicitly not “contest”) for active duty Army, National Guard members, and civilians working for the Army.

This follows other popular development challenges: the D.C. government’s Apps for Democracy project and Sunlight Labs’ Apps for America contest. These exercises have established that even moderate financial rewards will encourage both professional and casual developers to experiment creatively and share their code. The total prize money is $30,000 and will be split between entries in categories under the labels of Data-Driven; Warfighting; Mission-Specific; Local-Aware Mobile; Training & Education; Morale, Welfare, and Education; and Personnel & Career Management. One hundred teams and individuals can enter the challenge, and the competition will run until May 15.

The motivation began from an awareness of the power of the maker/hacker mentality; in fact, Lt. Gen. Sorenson began by stating strongly that the project attempts to change “how the Army functions.” Sorenson cited the example of two overseas deployed soldiers who had pressed for access to a Linux server to write web applications to share and collaborate on mission data. Unfortunately, however, due to a variety of barriers, it took six months for them to gain access to a server. Yet, once access was granted (near the end of their tour of duty), the soldiers were able to get an app online in two weeks, and before long the platform was expanded to serve around 14 or 15 different applications.

The Army has discovered that a young generation of “digital native” soldiers, as Sorenson put it, often have some software development experience, and that new tools, inexpensive open source software in particular, are enabling even “non-professional” programmers to write useful applications, often in rapid time. Hence, the Defense Information Systems Agency has adapted the military’s cloud computing environment, the Rapid Access Computing Environment (RACE), to serve the challenge as a development platform and as a demonstration environment. Of particular interest, Linux server environments and development toolkits for Android, IPhone, and Blackberry will be provided.

The source code for the applications will be hosted at forge.mil, the military’s code repository. Lt. Gen. Sorenson stated the Army is interested in exploring how they can collaborate with open source communities and local technology organizations in this and future endeavors. Also, DARPA has expressed interest in the Army’s project, according to Lt. Gen. Sorenson, and in general collaboration with hackerspaces.

HacDC, a D.C. technology collaborative, would welcome all Army soldiers and personnel in the National Capital Region to stop by to talk about mobile application and web development. The challenge explicitly encourages the creative use of new languages and mobile environments that many HacDC members have significant experience with.

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Article on Open Source Hardware in Wired Magazine

There’s a great article today in Wired Magazine on the trend of “Open Source Hardware” and DIY custom fabrication. It mentions the hackerspace concept in particular.

At HacDC, we have a RepRap available for use (and volunteered hacked improvements), and our members and friends own a good selection of the fabrication tools mentioned in the article. Some of them are perfectly willing to take orders with enough lead-time. If you are interested in learning more about this general trend and participating, feel free to stop by HacDC whenever we are open!