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Using Microsoft Robotics Studio to Program Parallax's Boe-Bot

With the newly released Microsoft Robotics Studio and Parallax's Boe-Bot Robot Kit, which uses Bluetooth technology, robotic programming has become accessible to anyone with .NET programming skills.

f you have ever wanted to experiment with robots but thought they were too expensive or complicated, think again. Earlier this year, Microsoft released a Community Technical Preview (CTP) of a new product named Microsoft Robotics Studio. The free software allows you to build applications that control robots using ASP.NET. That was timely, because Parallax, a California-based electronics company, has introduced a robot kit that supports Bluetooth technology and works directly with Microsoft Robotics Studio. And the best part is that the kit costs less than $200. This article will walk you through the steps for assembling the Boe-Bot and then using Robotics Studio to control its movements.

What You Need
  • Visual Studio .NET 2005
  • Microsoft Robotics SDK (November 2006 CTP release)
  • Parallax's Boe-Bot Kit for Microsoft Robotics Studio
  • BASIC Stamp Windows Editor, version 2.2.6
  • USB Adapter for your computer if the computer is not Bluetooth enabled

Parallax's Boe-Bot for Microsoft Robotics Studio
Parallax is an electronics company that designs and manufactures several robots for engineers, educators and hobbyists. The Boe-Bot is a small autonomous wheeled robot that's easy to assemble and requires no soldering—you need only a small screwdriver and a couple of free hours to assemble the robot.

The Boe-Bot is one of eight different robots currently supported by Robotics Studio. Parallax currently offers the Boe-Bot in kit form along with an eb500 Bluetooth module for only $198.77, which is 15 percent off the regular price. The kit includes an easy-to-read manual that walks you through the process to set up the Boe-Bot and programming it with Parallax's free BASIC Stamp Editor and PBASIC programming language. If a BASIC derivative is not your preferred language, that's where Microsoft Robotics Studio adds a whole new dimension to the Boe-Bot (see the sidebar: "Is Microsoft Robotics Studio Required?"). After running a few pre-written programs to test the Boe-Bot's motors and sensors and establish communication with Robotics Studio, you can do the rest of your programming in Visual Studio and the .NET language of your choice.

Assembling the Boe-Bot
When you first open the Boe-Bot box, don't be overwhelmed by all the small parts, or by the Boe-Bot manual cover's statement that assembly will take 40 hours. It won't. It will take you only one to two hours to assemble the Boe-Bot so it can communicate with Robotics Studio. The kit does include a variety of sensors, but you do not have to add them before you can drive your robot. You can add sensors and other enhancements later, but first you need to understand the basics.

I won't spend any time on assembly because the Boe-Bot manual explains that topic thoroughly. I will point out that you do NOT need to read the whole book before writing Robotics Studio programs to control a Boe-Bot; in fact, you need to complete only the following chapters and activities, each of which is only a few pages long:

  • Chapter 1—Activity 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Chapter 2—Activity 3, 4, 6
  • Chapter 3—Activity 1, 2, 3
  • Appendix D
The Boe-Bot kit comes with a serial cable, which you need to test your robot and load it with a program it needs to communicate with Robotics Studio. It is possible that your computer does not have a serial port. If this is the case, the current Web special includes a USB to Serial (RS-232) adapter, which lets you use a regular USB port to communicate with the Boe-Bot. In any case, after the initial tests and program load you'll use the Bluetooth module to drive the robot, which allows it a broader range of motion. You'll also need some standard AA-size batteries to power the robot (see the sidebar "Avoid Using Rechargeable Batteries").

The last thing you need to know is that if your computer is NOT Bluetooth enabled, you will need to purchase a USB Bluetooth adapter. There are several models available. The more expensive adapters have a longer range. You can purchase the D-Link DBT-120 Bluetooth USB adapter for as little as $24.99. This model is specifically featured in the electronic setup manual for the eb500 Bluetooth module. You can find an electronic copy of the manual in the /documents/Embedded_Blue_Transreceiver directory on the CD that comes with the Boe-Bot. You may need to refer to this manual if you have trouble communicating with the Bluetooth module. I used a Kensington Bluetooth USB adapter ($24.99) that has a range of up to 65 feet.

Working with Microsoft Robotics Studio
Figure 1. An Assembled Boe-Bot: The figure shows an assembled Parallax Boe-Bot for Microsoft Robotics Studio with Bluetooth capability.
If you are not familiar with Robotics Studio, you may want to refer to my earlier article "An Introduction to Programming with Microsoft Robotics Studio." The latest CTP of Robotics Studio lets you program a wide range of robots easily and consistently.

After assembling and testing the Boe-Bot, download the BluetoothControlledRobot PDF document. That document walks you through the additional steps required to get your robot working with the Bluetooth module and Robotics Studio. When assembled, the Boe-Bot should look like Figure 1.

The PDF document instructs you to load some programs into the Boe-Bot's BASIC Stamp® microcontroller so it can communicate with Robotics Studio. The instructions in the BluetoothControlledRobot PDF document reference a few BASIC programs that are, unfortunately, not supplied on the Boe-Bot CD. Instead, you must download them from the Parallax web site. The downloaded zip file contains four files with a .bs2 file extension. These are the BASIC programs called for by the BluetoothControlledRobot PDF document. The two you need to download to the Boe-Bot and run are:

  • TestSpekerLedsServos.bs2. You use this program to verify that the Boe-Bot's lights turn on and off and that it can travel a short distance, rotate left and right, and then move backwards again. Performing this test successfully ensures that the Boe-Bot is functioning properly and that you did not mix up the motor cables.
  • BoeBotControlForMsrsCtp2.bs2. You use this program to enable communication between the Boe-Bot and Microsoft Robotics Studio.

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