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Even in systems that lack multitasking capability it s still possible to write a robot control program that doesn t include a repeating loop that constantly scans (polls) the condition of sensors and other input. Two common ways of dealing with unpredictable external events are using a timer (software) interrupt or a hardware (physical connection) interrupt.
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Timer interrupt A timer built into the computer or microcontroller runs in the background. At predefined intervals most commonly when the timer overflows its count the timer grabs the attention of the microprocessor, which in turn temporarily suspends the main program. The microprocessor runs a special timer interrupt program, which in the case of a task-based robot would poll the various sensors and other input looking for possible error modes. (Think of the timer as a heart beat; at every beat the microprocessor pauses to do something special.) If no error is found, the microprocessor resumes the main program. If an error is found, the microprocessor runs the relevant section in code that deals with the error. Timer
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interrupts can occur hundreds of times each second. That may seem like a lot in human terms, but it can be trivial to a microprocessor running at several million cycles per second. A hardware interrupt is a mechanism by which to immediately get the attention of the microprocessor. It is a physical connection on the microprocessor that can in turn be attached to some sensor or other input device on the robot. With a hardware interrupt the microprocessor can spend 100 percent of its time on the main program and temporarily suspend it if, and only if, the hardware interrupt is triggered. Hardware interrupts are used extensively in most computers, and their benefits are well established. Your PC has several hardware interrupts. For example, the keyboard is connected to a hardware interrupt, so when you press a key the processor immediately fetches the data and makes it available to whatever program is currently running. The standard PC architecture has room for 16 hardware interrupts, even though the microprocessor uses just one interrupt pin. The one pin is multiplexed to make 16 separate inputs. You can do something similar in your own robot designs.
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Hardware interrupt Glass half-empty, half-full There are two basic ways to deal with error modes. One is to treat them as exceptions rather than the rule: I In the exception model, the program assumes no error mode and only stops to execute
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some code when an error is explicitly encountered. This is the case with a hardware interrupt. I In the opposite model, the program assumes the possibility of an error mode all the time and checks to see if its hunch is correct. This is the case with the timer interrupt. The approach you use will depend on the hardware choices available to you. If you have both a timer and a hardware interrupt at your disposal, the hardware interrupt is probably the more straightforward method because it allows the microprocessor to be used more efficiently.
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Few other moments in life compare to the instant when you solder that last piece of wire, file down that last piece of metal, tighten that last bolt, and switch on your robot. Something you created comes to life, obeying your commands and following your preprogrammed instructions. This is the robot hobbyist s finest hour. It proves that the countless evenings and weekends in the workshop were worth it after all. I started this book with a promise of adventure to provide you with a treasure map of plans, diagrams, schematics, and projects for making your own robots. I hope you ve followed along and built a few of the mechanisms and circuits that I described. Now, as you finish reading, you can make me a promise: improve on these ideas. Make them better. Use them in creative ways that no one has ever thought possible. Create that ultimate robot that everyone has dreamed about.
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