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What do "Super Monkey Ball" and an IP-enabled device have in common? Both are the inspiration for ICARUS, The free-roaming machine that allows users to have greater interaction with a webcam than is typical with a stationary device.
The ICARUS project was born during a meeting of DC480, an independent network security oriented group at UAT. During a discussion of the upcoming DefCon convention (think of it as the light side of hacking), UAT's IT Manager of Development, Ray Blackwood, asked if the group was entering the IP-enabled device contest.
The Details of ICARUS
Student Dennis Evans took it from there "I went home thinking about it and was playing "Super Monkey Ball" with my girlfriend when it came to me," Evans said. The game, consisting of controlling a monkey trapped in a clear ball, sparked the project forward. "I brought the idea up to the rest of the group at the next meeting, and everyone seemed to like it," said Dennis. "With ICARUS being in a remote location, it'll truly show off its ability to be controlled remotely over the Internet," Evans said. "It could be in the same hotel as DEFCON, it could be here at the school or it could be on the east coast in a friend's basement."
The design process leading to the final plan was comprehensive. The group went through several ideas-with one consisting of a robot in a ball with omni-directional wheels to maneuver-before settling on the current idea, a pendulum as the basis of movement. "The concept behind the pendulum is to shift the ball's center of gravity around to get it to roll in that particular direction," Evans explains.
Using the clear acrylic ball, a drive shaft (controlling movement) is affixed through the ball's center. The drive shaft is connected to a platform via wheel bearings. A motor attached to the platform will connect with the drive shaft. A "u-shaped" swing arm (perpendicular to the drive shaft) connects to the platform by wheel bearings. A battery (fixed at the crest of the arm) and servomotor turn the swing arm into a pendulum, swinging left and right. The wireless 802.11 camera is fixed on the swing arm, providing a live video feed. An 802.11 receiver and controller board is placed inside the ball.
Regarding actual movement, the process is more complicated. When the user moves the device forward, the motor propels the drive shaft and attempts to lift the battery on the swing arm. Because the battery is being raised, there is less weight on the drive shaft, allowing for the device to move. For turning left and right, the servomotor and the swing arm come into play. The servomotor shifts the pendulum to the left and right. Before the arm swings the weight, the platform and drive shaft tilt in that direction-turning the ball.
The Challenges of ICARUS
No project is without its share of problems, and the ICARUS team encountered a few-a big difficulty was scheduling time amidst the busy life of being students.
Another challenge was the lack of parts or proper tools at the earliest stage, so students set out to seek industry support and sponsorship
The key technical challenge to development had to do with the link controlling ICARUS. The 802.11 wireless network presented an interesting challenge for the group to secure-and it presented a hacking target for others. "With ICARUS being controlled over an 802.11 wireless network, there is always a risk of control being taken over by an unauthorized user," Evans said.
The group does anticipate a remedy to this potential peril soon, however. "When we get to this point of the programming, we will look to install some security measures to prevent unauthorized access," Evans said.
While ICARUS began as merely an exciting student project, the technology has potential practical applications. "For one, ICARUS can be used for its primary purpose, which is surveillance," Evans said. "It has the potential to be a roaming security guard that records everything it sees. This won't necessarily get rid of its human counterpart, as there will need to be someone to control ICARUS and monitor what it sees.
"We have thought about creating a more beefed up model for racing in a custom-made half-pipe track. With multiple ICARUS', we could play just about any multiplayer game you could conceive of-like capture the flag, laser tag and many others," says Evans
To improve upon the device's functions, the team needed to create and stick with a functioning model. Quality control and feedback were keys to realizing its many uses. "We didn't know such things as what the battery life will be like and whether it will actually perform under rigorous conditions," Evans admits. "So a lot of bugs have to be worked out before we could move forward with its full potential."
With a heralded appearance at DEFCON and G4 Television, and the feature player at September's DC480 CON, Project ICARUS was the jewel of UAT's Net Security club, but it also caused a lot of burnout.
"After DEFCON, we kind of took a break from it for awhile because, at DEFCON, we spent - I think - a whole night straight just building this one," Evans said. "So after a night like that, we didn't think about ICARUS, we didn't dream about ICARUS, we didn't do anything with ICARUS." While the group envisioned refining ICARUS, plans were for DC480 to move on to projects differing from their robotic sphere. But whispers around campus for ICARUS to appear at Tech Forum sounded the call for a re-emergence of the IP ball.
With a re-energized crew and a new goal, DC480 tackled the task at hand. But instead of merely patching up the first model, DC480 decided to scrap it in favor of a newer - and better - ICARUS: version 2.0. "It's a rebuilt version of the old one; it's just revamped," Evans said. After building the first one, the group found the kinks and tried to work them out -- a high center of gravity, lack of battery power, a slightly lopsided acrylic sphere, and a faulty servo were problems plaguing the first version. "Basically, everything that's not the camera, control board, power board and wiring got redone," Evans said.
DC480 took several measures to rectify the mistakes of old, and part of the equation lay in the transparent sphere. The group ordered an 18" polycarbonate ball, which addressed many challenging issues. The added size also allowed more room for longer aluminum rods for the axle and swing arms and two batteries instead of one for more power. "We went with the 18" ball so we could make the center of gravity lower; we're going to put both batteries inside of there which will increase the pendulum weight; and we're going to try not to put as much power to the motor - which all of these factors put together should prevent the pendulum from ever spinning over the top of the sphere like it did at DEFCON(which is a major issue)."
Other new parts included carbon fiber board and a new servo with metal gears for the pendulum to turn the ball (eliminating stripping of gears, according to Evans).
Along with the changes, DC480 decided to alter a few features. A servo left over from the first ICARUS will work in tandem with the camera for a new pan feature. Using an analog controller, the right analog stick pans left and right (the left analog stick moves ICARUS in four directions).
Another modification involves the ICARUS network. The group switched control of ICARUS from the private Robotics network to the school's Tsunami network for a wider range of coverage. "We'll be able to sit in one spot and drive ICARUS wherever around the school (as long as we have connectivity),
With the tight schedule, DC480 wasn't able to address all the bugs from the first ICARUS. However, the group is satisfied with what they've accomplished thus far.
"The time constraints were less than desirable, but we worked around them. I wish we had more time to do some more debugging, but we're getting the major stuff that we needed to address that ended up fixed," Evans said.
The Future of ICARUS
That potential of ICARUS may be tapped in the near future, but the DC480 group can't guess the future. While primarily a network security group, the club is not ruling out exploring the possibilities of the IP-device. "I think ICARUS has been a project that is kind of out of the scope of the DC480 group," Evans said. "I'm sure a select few of us will make ICARUS an ongoing project after it's completed, but it's not going to be the focus of DC480, since our goals are more diverse than that." Still, the group's vision, resourcefulness and persistence to bring ICARUS to fruition are impressive nonetheless. Not bad for an idea stemming from a monkey trapped in a ball.
The Students Behind ICARUS
The ICARUS group-mainly consisted of UAT students Dennis Evans, Nicholas Nau, Daniel Scarberry, Jeremy Leung, Justin Messina, Victor Bonilla and Bernardo Bonilla.
Project Lead: Raymond Blackwood, UAT IT Manager of Development
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