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Book Review: Mastering Beaglebone Robotics

Richard Grimmett. Mastering Beaglebone Robotics. Birmingham, UK: Packt Publishing Ltd., 2014. ISBN #978-1-78398-890-7 http://bit.ly/MBbR8907

Book Review by Douglas M. Wiig

With the release of the Raspberry Pi single board computer a new generation of single board multi-platform and multi-use computers has rapidly developed. One of the newer boards to be developed is the Beaglebone Black which is a low cost, multi-functional package that has a number of core functionalities that facilitate building robotic projects. Grimmett’s Mastering Beaglebone Robotics is a very informative and readable guide to the development and implementation of several such projects. The finished projects are sophisticated, functional and educational. They also lend themselves to expansion into even more complex applications if the reader is so inclined.

This book is not intended for beginners with single board computing platforms or robotics but the author does go through the basics of setting up the Beaglebone and installing the necessary software to accommodate the projects in the book. If you are not yet comfortable with installing and configuring hardware and software or working with the Linux command line you should have a basic reference handy as you work through the initial hardware and software setup in chapter one of the book. The author does provide numerous photos and screen shots to help with the process. The author also uses very clear indications of how and what command line actions are used in installing and configuring various programs needed to set up the Beaglebone for the projects in the book.

Once the basic hardware and software are installed and running the author begins a discussion of robotics by taking the reader through a step by step process to create a movable project based on two tank tracks. The chapter covers the basics of using a motor and controller to power the project, the development and use of programs to control the vehicle and the use of voice commands to control the vehicle.

The author provides a detailed description along with numerous photos showing the build as it progresses. In the sections of the chapter where Beaglebone programming is covered the author uses very clear descriptions of the code that make the process easy to follow. Another nice feature of this book as well as other technical books in the Packt library is the availability for download of all of the code used in the book. This is a very handy feature and helps to prevent the frustration of coding errors that are inherent in entering the code from scratch on a keyboard. It also facilitates the debugging phase of the projects.

Once the basic mobile project platform is functional the author devotes two additional chapters to adding sensors of various kinds such as distance object detection, and adding vision and vision processing capabilities. Once again, the author uses numerous detailed photos, screen shots and programming detail in discussing these phases of the project. By the time the reader finishes chapter four of the book a fully functional, programmable movable platform has been developed.

Subsequent chapters of the book are devoted to additional projects that incorporate the basic principles of robotics learned in the initial project. The author discusses building robots that can walk, sail, and use GPS for navigation. There is also a discussion of a project robot that can be submerged and controlled remotely while under water.

The final two chapters of the book detail a quadcopter that is remotely controlled and an autonomous quadcopter that features programmed flight controlled by GPS. I found these chapters particularly interesting as one of my hobbies is flying radio controlled aircraft of various types. These two projects are rather advanced in nature and are more for readers interested in contributing to the development of such projects. In both projects the Beaglebone is used for higher level function such as GPS navigation, path planning and communications. Most of the low level functioning such as controlling the servo motors and other mechanical functions is accomplished by programming and incorporating a separate flight controller board.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the handy features of this book as well as others offered by Packt Publishing is the availability of the computer code used in each chapter of the book. The code used in Mastering Beaglebone Robotics is written in Python and there are files for each of the chapters (with the exception of chapters one and six). This is a useful feature not only for debugging purposes but for those readers who wish to develop other projects or add to the projects detailed in the book.

I found Mastering Beaglebone Robotics to be a good read and a readily usable guide to some of the more complex robotics concepts and construction practices. As indicated earlier this would not be a first book for one starting in either robotics or single-board computing platforms. For the reader with some experience in programming and construction practices the book is an interesting and informative source of information about a rapidly growing field in computer science technology and robotics.