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Ciril: a Cubic Inch Robot

The ESP8266 opens up new possibilities for hardware design of educational robots. This project aims to put together an open hardware design compatible with the Flobot project and also projects such as NodeMCU.

Why so small?

The eventual aim is for dimensions of approximately 1 cubic inch (25 x 25 x 25 mm = 16 cubic centimeters), but the immediate goal is approximately 40 x 40 x 40 mm (4 cubic inches).

The intention is to be a size which is easy for a small child to pick up one-handed and which is small enough to explore line following and so on experiments on a desktop sized platform (approx 1m^2)

(I just noticed the AERobot which has very similar aims ... and instead of wheels it shakes along on pager motors! Very strange but also quite a cool idea)


The main board features two miniature stepper motors soldered directly to the PCB and driving two very small wheels. It is designed to run around on a desktop so very little ground clearance is needed.

An ESP12-E module is soldered directly to the main board with its antenna protruding over the edge of the main board to reduce signal interference.

A micro-USB port allows charging the built-in LiPo battery and reflashing the ESP8266 (for Flobot or NodeMCU) via a serial port converter.

Sensors include a line-following sensor, ambient light sensor and an ultrasonic range sensor (if there's any pins left over, maybe a header)

A 3D printed shell on the top and bottom of the robot provides protection and physical support. The lower shell supports the motors, light guides for the line-following sensors and has skids at either end. The upper shell has a rounded, childs-hand-friendly shape, with cutouts to expose the range sensor and reveal the PCB and battery inside.


Very much just started development!


A quick manifest of parts which seem like candidates:


  • ESP8266 on ESP-12E module. This has the most pins available of the ESP8266 modules and can be picked up for around AUD5 on Ebay.
  • It is also possible that an ATtiny2313 or similar could communicate with the main processor over serial or I2C to provide more I/O. Currently, the NodeMCU uses a USB-to-serial converter, for roughly the same PCB footprint we could use a more general piece of hardware which would be useful when the system is untethered.

Wheel Motors

  • Micro-stepper motors from Ebay in 4,6,10,15mm diameters.
  • Very small rubber wheels/tyres and also model airplane foam wheels worth consideration. Experiments with foam tyres suggest they've got not much traction.
  • Direct driving the wheels from tiny steppers is not ideal, other options like rubber band drive belts may need to be considered.
  • this will require some experimentation.

UPDATE: The 10mm and 6mm motors have arrived and the 10mm look like the most likely option at this point. The 4mm motors are so tiny that I haven't yet worked out how to solder on to them!

Battery / Charger

The ESP8266 runs on 3.0 - 3.6V, so 2 x AAA batteries is a possibility, but that's a fairly large battery and AAAA don't seem to be widely available.

Preferably a LiIon / LiPo cell would be better. Small very high energy ones are available for RC heli applications. A chip like the LTC3558 could act as both charge-from-USB and as an efficient LiPo -> 3.3V converter.

The little steppers seem to drive quite well on 4.5V, and potentially could take a lot more (briefly). So I'm also considering if the motor circuit should run directly from two LiPo cells in series (7.2V) with the 3.3V supply regulated by a buck regulator like LM2596.

The other thing which building a prototype made clear is that I need a power button or switch of some kind!

Motor drivers

Driving two bipolar stepper motors is going to take 8 half H-bridges and 8 I/O pins. It'd be great to get the pin count down by being a bit clever about this. The tiniest stepper motors probably draw about 50mA so there's some room to move here ...

  • L9110S or LV8548MC or similar.
  • Or maybe drive motors directly from a CMOS type buffer if the current draw is low enough. A dual-quad-latch would reduce pin count a little.

Line Follower

Maybe use two infrared proximity sensors such as QRD1114.

Or maybe use two LEDs pointing down, either side of a single analog photodiode feeding into the ADC pin. By switching the LEDs on and off and monitoring light level change, we can extract analog line follower information from the single ADC. The lower shell can provide a light guide for these components.

Ambient Light

An LDR pointing upwards would provide a decent enough ambient light sensor to demonstrate phototaxis. We've only got one ADC pin to play with but can maybe use some output pins to choose between light sensors.

LED lighting

Kids love colour. If the shell is fairly translucent then three LEDs could cause it to light up nicely from the inside. This is also good as a diagnostic output. Of course, that's 3 more PWM channels ...

Proximity Sensor

There are heaps of modules around which use a pair of ultrasonic transducers, one to transmit and one to receive. However, we should be able to do better and use a single device with clever driver software to switch from transmit to receive. Accuracy isn't that important so long as we can detect a barrier.

Alternatives are the Sharp Infrared distance sensors or similar.






Cubic Inch Robot ...







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