Behind the scenes at robotics maker Parallax (pictures)
From flying drones that can lift 15 pounds to protoype cars with motion sensors: Join us on this tour of how robotics experts Parallax make their wonderful toys.
Based in Rocklin, Calif., Parallax Inc. designs and manufactures microcontrollers, components, kits, and other accessories. Founded in 1986 by Chip Gracey and Lance Walley, the company was originally based out of a small apartment and specialized in selling audio digitizers for the Apple II, among other specialized products.
In 1992 Parallax devised what would be its core product, the BASIC Stamp module -- a user-programmable micro controller that is still the foundation of their business today.
Director of Strategic Operations Jessica Uelmen explains that Parallax's Human Interface Boards get manufactured in-house on large sheets like the one she's holding and are later cut apart and shipped out to customers.
This board in particular works as an inexpensive way to translate signals from things such as keyboards, mice, or even game controllers, so that they can communicate easily with Parallax's line of BASIC Stamp boards.
When we paid a visit to the Parallax tech support lab, we couldn't help falling in love with this little guy. You're looking at a high-powered, ultra-rugged remote-controlled car designed and built by Parallax.
But don't get your hopes up, kids. Though functional, it was explained to us that this particular R&D project wasn't economically feasible to release as kit. Maybe someday.
Jessica Uelmen of Parallax shows off a customized version of the Stingray Robot Chassis kit. Created in-house using acrylic and custom-machined parts, the chassis acts as a base for robotics projects, much like a standardized chassis for an automobile. The orange wheels are motorized and the pair of ultrasonic sensors on the front are able to sense obstacles and relay that information the onboard micro controller.
A key component in Parallax's in-house manufacturing is a large machine called K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Soldering). Inside it, a track moves a large patchwork of micro controller boards in place while a continuously running fountain of hot, lead-free solder moves precisely underneath to join components to the board at specific locations.
The tiny robot seen in the lower right is named Boe-Bot. Designed and packaged as an educational kit by Parallax, Boe-Bot can be set to obey a set of custom commands, such as traveling a predetermined path on the ground or wandering until it encounters an obstacle (such as a foot) and stopping a set length away.
Because Boe-Bots programming instructions are loaded using an external microSD card, students can quickly make adjustments to the code and see the results.
This particular Boe-Bot is outfitted with a pair of ultrasonic sensors, mounted on a expansion board manufactured by Parallax. Not only do these sensors provide the robot with important feedback about its surroundings, but they also bestow the 'bot with what looks like a tiny face.
Parallax sells a popular kit for building a four-rotor remote controlled helicopter. This is not it. This is what happens when the president of Parallax, Ken Gracey, makes a version of the helicopter built roughly twice as large, capable of carrying a payload of around 15 pounds. It's a thing of beauty -- and like all of Parallax's offspring -- completely customizable all the way down to the software.
Parallax says that it will be available for purchase sometime in the near future, although they have yet to decide on its name or price.
Another advantage of the open system used by the Parallax ELEV-8 RC helicopter kit is that the distance it can travel away from the radio transmitter is dictated entirely by the components you use. Unlike the closed systems used by off-the-shelf quadcopters, the ELEV-8 can be adapted and expanded for greater speed, lifting power, and range, using common RC modules.