Wednesday, April 27, 2016

BlueSmartControl - automate your Technic creations

A little over a yer ago TBs posted a first article about BlueSmartControl or BSC as the developers abbreviate it. Back then the product was still in very early development and while it showed some promise, it wasn't commercially available.

Since then a lot has happened.

Now I can hear you thinking: why would I need another BlueTooth controller for my Technic creations when there's already something like the SBrick. It's a fair question and one that merits a well thought answer, so let's take it in steps.

On the surface there are a number of similarities between the two platforms as well as some striking differences:

SBrick is a BLE controlled device with one input (battery power) and 4 outputs (motors/lights) in a slick and very LEGO-like casing, with a 4x4 footprint and includes a few pinholes for easy integration into a model.

BSC is a BT controlled device with 5 inputs (battery + sensors) and 6 outputs (motors/lights) in a simple non-proprietary casing with a 4x6 footprint that can easily be attached to a plate (bottom side) and is just under 2 bricks high (including connected cables - BSC comes with PF cables that have been modified on one end to fit the unit)

So far the SBrick looks to be the mor professional solution, or does it? If we think in terms of technology there are a few significant differences that can already be easily observed. A first difference is in the BlueTooth technology used. While BLE is a very promising new technology there are still large number of devices that don't support it. BLE requires Android version 4.4 and above. BSC on the other hand works with BT 2.1 and above meaning any Android 4.0 device (and above) is compatible. Another difference lies in the number of motor connection points - 4 for SBrick and 6 for BSC. In addition, BSC comes with a specific port for connecting sensors.

The app is very responsive as can be seen in this (quite long) video Sariel made last year, testing the functionality of the app, including buttons, sliders and a game pad that allows controlling 2 motors linked to the X and Y positions on the pad:

Are you starting to see the differences?

Then let's look at what BSC can do. The BSC Control Center is the app that is used to control the BSC unit (or units - up to 7 units can be controlled at the same time, meaning you can use 42 outputs in a single scenario!). This app is the heart of the power of BSC and is what sets it aside. While the SBrick app allows you to create beautiful scenarios and controls, in essence those controls are only digital renderings of the physical controls LEGO provides with the standard Technic remote ("bang bang" control, that is on/off) and the Train remote (specific power level settings). While this can obviously also be done in the BSC Control Center, this app takes control to the next level by introducing programmable sequences.

Probably the easiest way to explain the implications of this system is by going back to Sariels Automated Trafficators System, a mechanical solution to make the indicator lights on motorised vehicles blink while it steered in the corresponding direction. His solution involved an M-motor and 3 polarity switches. The BSC Control Center allows you to do the same thing with a single control (button/slider/...). How? By setting up a sequence in the app by which each time you move the slider you have assigned to the steering mechanism is moved to the right not only the motor assigned to steering is turned on, but the lights on the side of the vehicle you steer towards start blinking. This means that with a single control you can set in motion several simultaneous or sequential actions.

The next step would be adding sensors to this mix. Unfortunately, MINDSTORMS sensors are quite bulky and incorporating an EV3 into a Technic model can be challenging at best. The size and power of BSC open up completely new avenues in this regard. Have a look at this short and very simple video of a lift, controlled by BSC. The carriage incorporates a magnet and there are reed switches on each floor level:

The BSC also works with an RFID sensor which can read transponder tags. You can see an excellent application of this principle in the video below in which the RFID sensor is used to detect the position of a train:

These are only the first of a series of sensors that are proposed by the BSC team. RFID is especially interesting for application in Train layouts as it allows you to know where each train is and progam sequences accordingly - starting ans stopping trains automatically, think of signal lights, switch points, etc. But Hall sensors, light sensors, Reed switches and distance sensors can all be integrate with the BSC and programmed from the BSC Control Sensor

The BSC is currently on Kickstarter, and his is their promotional video:


Dave said...

Nice concept, but there's only 6 days to go to raise ~$41,000 by May 3rd on Kickstarter! That's not a lot of time.

Jetro said...

Agreed - the timing of the campaign wasn't optimum. I haven't had time to test the unit until just now and I didn't want to write about it before making sure what it can do. I'm impressed though, and I hope the team will find a way to extend or relaunch the campaign with better publicity so it gets some traction.

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