The Story of SMOLApr 14, 2022
The SMOL is Robots Everywhere's latest robotics platform, and it has a rather long story behind it. To introduce the SMOL, it is a tiny mobile camera system that can connect to, or provide, a WiFi network that allows a user to control the robot via a web interface or API. It is designed for extensibility - more servos, more sensors, different chassis - and we hope retail customers will enjoy it as much as our industrial ones.
SMOL has playful beginnings. The story starts all the way back in 2010, with the beginnings of Antbot (then Robots Anywhere), and a Warhammer 40’000 Land Raider model. The question was “can we fit a full Antbot system, including motherboard, 2010-era battery, and Android phone into a Land Raider, without enlarging it?” The answer turned out to be a very shaky yes, but as we went on to make cubesats and develop other serious uses for the Antbot platform, the playful Land Raider project was shelved.
Step forward into 2020, and the CellSol project exposing Robots Everywhere to the ESP32 platform. We quickly discover the ESP32Cam module, and it did not take long before the association was made, and the old Land Raider project pulled off the shelf. Riley figured it would push the limits of the ESP32Cam, and be a fun project, and it definitely did both of those things. The addition of 5 (later reduced to 2) servos, 3 LED channels, and a speaker to the ESP32Cam made use of every output pin available on the module, and pushed the web service limit of the original firmware libraries. If you want to read more about the Land Raider, you can do so here.
During the Land Raider project, MKB decided to build their own little robot using the platform. Making the PCB structural, and directly soldering servo brackets to the board, MKB was able to make a very tiny robot with two continuous-rotation servos and a captive ball bearing that could turn in place, and drive under beds, sofas, and cars with its camera and powerful flashlight. This was the birth of the first SMOL, and we began to explore the serious potential of the ESP32Cam module with a better power delivery system.
SMOL became somewhat of a back burner project, slowly being developed through 2021 in the team’s spare time. A better web interface appeared, a chassis that could be used with 26mm wheels in place of the captive ball bearing emerged, and features were added. The board was refined to improve power delivery and performance of the ESP32Cam module, and still keep a prototyping area, so that we (and anyone we might sell it to) can hack on it and expand its capabilities.
Going back to its playful roots, we also developed the flat chassis for the SMOL, after playing some Rainbow Six Siege and seeing the comically large scout drones used in the game, going through unrealistic cat doors. We asked ourselves what that would look like in real life, and then we built it.. We also snuck it into a Mars Society presentation and put some quad-bogie mini-tracks on it. Yep, same architecture.
We chose to backronym SMOL for the name, because of its popular culture connotations and we thought this little robot was very cute. Obviously, it is very tiny, and “mobile observation link” presents its capabilities as a networked camera that can drive around very well.
The SMOL is now in a crowdfunding stage, to gauge interest in further development. We hope you back the campaign on indiegogo and help SMOL move to become the open source ESP32Cam robotics standard it deserves to be. We will be creating a public code repository and releasing the firmware with an open source license during the campaign, and if the campaign meets its funding goals, we will also release the schematics under a similar license for hardware.
Speaking of releases, watch this space - the beta of Antbot 2.0 will be arriving before the end of April.
We look forward to seeing what we can invent together with SMOL.