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PixelBot Part 2: Devices need protocols, apparently

A selection of the technologies I'm using to put together my PixelHub server.

So there I was. I'd just got home, turned on my laptop, opened the Arduino IDE and Monodevelop, and then.... nothing. I knew I wanted my PixelBot to talk to the PixelHub I'd started writing, but I was confused as to how I could make it happen.

In this kind of situation, I realised that although I knew what I wanted them to do, I hadn't figured out the how. As it happens, when you're trying to get one (or more, in this case) different devices to talk to each other, there's something rather useful that helps them all to speak the same language: a protocol.

A protocol is a specification that defines the language that different devices use to talk to each other and exchange messages. Defining one before you start writing a networked program is probably a good idea - I find particularly helpful to write a specification for the protocol that the program(s) I'm writing, especially if their function(s) is/are complicated.

To this end, I've ended up spending a considerable amount of time drawing up the PixelHub Protocol - a specification document that defines how my PixelHub server is going to talk to a swarm of PixelBots. It might seem strange at first, but I decided on a (mostly) binary protocol.

Upon closer inspection though, (I hope) it makes a lot of sense. Since the Arduino is programmed using C++ as it has a limited amount of memory, it doesn't have any of the standard string manipulation function that you're used to in C♯. Since C++ is undoubtedly the harder of the 2 to write, I decided to make it easier to write the C++ rather than the C&sharp. Messages on the Arduino side are come in as a byte[] array, so (in theory) it should be easy to pick out certain known parts of the array and cast them into various different fundamental types.

With the specification written, the next step in my PixelBot journey is to actually implement it, which I'll be posting about in the next entry in this series!

My PixelBot is Connected! (Part 1)

After many attempts and solving many problems, I've finally gotten my Wemos-powered PixelBot to connect via TCP to a C# server component I've written. Since I experienced so many problems with it, I decided to post about it here to help others who want to do the same as I.

The first (and arguably most difficult) hurdle I came across was the lack of correct information. For one, the TCP client class is actually called WifiClient (which is confusing in and of itself). For another, there aren't any really good tutorials out there that show you what to do.

In addition, I wanted to build a (rather complicated as it turns out!) auto discovery system to allow my PixelBot to find the PixelHub (the server) automatically. As usual, there was even less information about this task! All I found was an outdated guide and rather simplistic example. I ended up inspecting the header file of the WiFiUDP class in order to figure it out.

In this post, I'm going to explain how I got the autodiscovery mechanism working. Before we begin, you need to understand what multicast UDP is and how it works. For those of you who don't, I've posted all about it.

There are several ways that one can go about writing an autodiscovery mechanism. While Rob Miles chose mDNS, I ended up approaching the problem from a different angle and writing my own protocol. It's best explained with a diagram:

A diagram explaining the PixelBot's autodiscovery mechanism.

  1. The PixelHub server has a beacon that sends out pings to tell the PixelBots where it is
  2. The PixelBots subscribe to the beacon ping channel when they want to find the server
  3. The PixelBots decode the incoming ping packets to find the discover of the server
  4. The PixelBots connect to the PixelHub server using the credentials that it found in the beacon pings it decoded!

In order to receive these beacon pings, we need to set up a UDP listener and wire it up to receive multicast packets. In the following example I'm multicasting on on port 5050.

IPAddress beaconAddress = IPAddress(239, 62, 148, 30);
unsigned int beaconPort = 5050;

WiFiUDP UdpClient;
UdpClient.beginMulticast(WiFi.localIP(), beaconAddress, beaconPort);

After connecting to the multicast address, we then need to receive the pings:

// Create a buffer to hold the message 
byte datagramBuffer[datagramBufferSize];
// Prefill the datagram buffer with zeros for protection later
memset(datagramBuffer, '\0', datagramBufferSize);
while(true) {
    int datagramSize = UdpClient.parsePacket();
    Serial.print("Received datagram #");
    Serial.print(" bytes in size from ");

    // Don't overflow the message buffer!
    if(datagramSize > datagramBufferSize) {
        Serial.println(", but the message is larger than the datagram buffer size.");
    // Read the message in now that we've verified that it won't blow our buffer up, datagramSize);

    // Cheat and cast the datagram to a character array
    char* datagramStr = (char*)datagramBuffer;


That's rather complicated for such a simple task! Anyway, now we've got our beacon ping into a character array, we can start to pick it apart. Before we do, here's what my beacon pings look like:

  ^        ^        ^
 Role IP Address   Port

Although it looks simple, in C++ (the language of the arduino) it's rather a pain. Here's what I came up with:

// Define the role of the remote server that we're looking for
char desiredRemoteRole[7] = { 's', 'e', 'r', 'v', 'e', 'r', '\0' };

// Find the positions of the key characters
int atPos = findChar(datagramStr, '@');
int colonPos = findChar(datagramStr, ':');

// Create some variables to store things in
char role[7];
char serverIp[16];
char serverPortText[7];
int serverPort = -1;
// Fill everything with zeroes to protect ourselves
memset(role, '\0', 7);
memset(serverIp, '\0', 16);
memset(serverPortText, '\0', 7);
// Extract the parts of the 
strncpy(role, datagramStr, atPos);
strncpy(serverIp, datagramStr + atPos + 1, colonPos - atPos - 1);
strncpy(serverPortText, datagramStr + colonPos + 1, datagramSize - colonPos - 1);


// Print everything out to the serial console
Serial.print("atPos: "); Serial.println(atPos);
Serial.print("colonPos: "); Serial.println(colonPos);

Serial.print("Role: "); Serial.print(role); Serial.print(" ");
Serial.print("Remote IP: "); Serial.print(serverIp); Serial.print(" ");
Serial.print("Port number: "); Serial.print(serverPortText);

// If the advertiser isn't playing the role of a server, then we're not interested
if(strcmp(role, desiredRemoteRole) != 0)
    Serial.print("Incompatible role "); Serial.print(role); Serial.println(".");
Serial.println("Role ok!");
serverPort = atoi(serverPortText);

Phew! That's a lot of code! I've tried to annotate it the best I can. The important variables in the are serverIp the serverPort - they hold the IP address and the port number of the remote machine that we want to connect to.

I hope that's somewhat helpful. If there's anything you don't understand or need help with, please post a comment down below :-)

Next time, I'm going to show off the TCP connection bit of the system. Stay tuned :D

Arduino Runtime Exception List

Just yesterday I was at the Hardware Meetup at C4DI, and I (along with a few other people - thank you for helping :D) was attempting to fix a series of nasty runtime errors. All it gave me was a message in the serial monitor that an exception had occurred, an error code, and a raw stack dump. This wasn't very helpful at all. Even more unhelpful was the lack of help out there on how to decode this information.

I did, however, manage to find a page that contains a list of the different error codes and their meanings. It's not much, but it's a start. It helped us at least to work out what was wrong with it :-)

Arduino Exception Reference

The Visual Micro Logo

If you're running Windows, then Microsoft have created Visual Micro - a what looks like a perfectly brilliant debugger for the arduino. Apparently you can inspect variables, see the digital pin statuses, and get intellisense lovelyness :D Since I'm running linux, I can't get my hands on it - hopefully someone will build an alternative for linux and other OSes soon!

I also discovered a weird oddity with UDP Multicast in C#. I'm going to investigate further and write up another post that will (hopefully) follow this one.

Arduino quick reference guide

The arduino logo

This post was going to be about how I connected my robot to a WiFi network and controlled it wirelessly, but I've been having some issues with getting that to work :-( Since I wanted to make a post anyway, I thought I'd post about a quick reference guide I found instead :-)

An arduino quick reference guide.

(Download as: png, svg | Original source)

I found this decided to print it out and laminate it. It's been really useful - I'm really glad I decided to print it out now. It was originally made by a guy called Mark Liffiton. You can find its Github repository here. The version I have posted here is tweaked very slightly to have colour on the reset button, which the original doesn't have.

Next I'm going to attempt to find a similar sort of thing for the esp8266 (upon which the Wemos D1 R2 is based) API, because I'm constantly having to look up various functions all over the place and it wastes a lot of time :-)

Have you found a handy reference sheet? Post about it in the comments below!

Getting started with arduino

An arduino and a simple circuit.

Since I've been playing around with the Arduino a bit recently (thank you Rob!) I thought I'd write a quick post on how you can get started with the arudino and it's many variants.

If you're into creating electronics and creating circuits, then the arduino is for you. The arduino is a small electronic board that you might find some variant thereof in your thermostat at home, or Rob's thing-o-matic for example. You'll probably find something akin to an arduino in most embedded systems.

To get started, you'll need to buy an Arduino Uno (you can probably find it cheaper elsewhere). Some LEDs, resistors, and jumper cables wouldn't hurt either.

Once you've got all that, you can start to have some fun. To compile and send programs to your new arudino, you'll need to download and install the Arduino IDE from the official arduino website (direct link for debian / ubuntu users). Once installed, connect your arduino to your computer using the supplied cable and open the IDE.

The menu options that need changing in the IDE

Next, we need to set the IDE up to send correctly compiled programs to our new board. Firstly, we need to tell the IDE what kind of board we have. Go to Tools->Board and select Arduino Uno. We also need to tell the IDE which programmer to use. Go to Tools->Programmer and select AVRISP mkII. Finally, we need to tell the IDE which serial port the arduino is connected on. Go to Tools->Serial Port and select the last item in the list. If the next steps don't work, try selecting a different option in this list until it works.

With that out of the way, we can start to test out our arduino! Arduinos are programmed using a variant of C, which is similar to GSGL. To get started quickly, let's send some example code to our arduino to start with. In the file menu, go to Examples->01. Basics and select Blink.

Selecting the example code in the file menu.

A new window will pop up containing the example code. To compile and send the code to your arduino, click the second button in from the left, with the right facing arrow on it. This will send the code to your arduino. Once it's done, you should see a flashing light on your arduino board!

The Arduino IDE interface.

The other buttons are also useful. Here's an explanation:

  1. Verify - Compiles and checks your code for syntax errors, but doesn't write it to the arduino.
  2. Upload - Compiles your code and sends it to your arduino.
  3. New - Creates a new document. This clears your existing tab! Use the down arrow below the 6 in the picture and select New Tab instead.
  4. Open - Opens an existing document. Again, this clears your existing tab.
  5. Save - This should be obvious.
  6. Opens the serial monitor. The serial monitor is like a very basic console which allows you to see what your arduino is saying and lets you send messages to it.

That just about covers my very basic getting started tutorial for the arduino. If you've got any questions or comments, please leave them down below.

Sources and Further Reading

The Hull Pixelbot Meetup

Rob's Hull Pixelbot (Above: Rob's WiFi-enabled Pixelbot.)

Today Rob Miles was kind enough to give me a lift to the monthly hardware (or hull pixel bot) meetup. It was different to what I'm used to, but it was rather fun actually!

Rob Miles has built a kit that gives you the parts to build your very own Arduino-powered robot that trundles around on the floor. He's also managed to add a WiFi chip to it too - so you can (provided you write the code) connect to your pixel bot and control it remotely!

You can build your own by going to

I'll certainly be playing around with it and attending the next meetup (meetups are on the first Thursday of every month at 6:00pm at C4DI).

Art by Mythdael