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This Is What A Robot Brain Looks Like

Rex is the first microcomputer board streamlined specifically for robotics, complete with a custom version of Linux.

[Image: Flickr user epSos .de]

The ascendence of microcomputers is nigh, but hackers working on robotics projects have never had a robot brain that works out of the box. Now a new board called Rex will allow tinkerers to build robots from the ground up with a customized OS. Bonus: It saves you from doing a ton of wiring.

The pair behind Rex, Mike Lewis and Kartik Tiwarti, met while both were studying robotics at Carnegie Mellon. They dreamed of a DIY robot processing unit that would be more powerful than a microcontroller but with fewer extraneous connections than a Raspberry Pi-esque microcomputer.

The actual Rex board is shorter than a deck of cards, so it’ll fit on odd-size robots yet has connections for a slew of weird, fun stuff—like sensors, servos, microphones, and even microcontrollers. There’s even a special header to plug in a kill switch to cut the motors (but not the system) if you’re extra-worried about a sentient robot rebellion.

Better still, the Rex team has been listening to feedback and replaced the JTAG header footprint with 14 GPIO pins. Otherwise, its I2C hookups are great for all the weird little servos you want to propel your robobeast with.

Perhaps the most promising aspect of the kit is the custom Linux-based OS, Alphalem, which the pair have released open source even before their project is funded—an uncommon move allowing potential backers to look at the code before they buy. The hardware isn’t open source, but the pair believes that they’ll be releasing enough information to inspire clever tinkerers to build compatible devices and adapt any other Linux distribution to it.

Rex has almost reached one-third of its $90,000 goal with two weeks to go. At $99, it’s twice the cost of a Raspberry Pi but just a little over the $89, less-powerful BeagleBone board that inspired Rex.