[Part 1]: Building a self-driving RC car

Self-Driving RC Ferrari

On my spare time, I read a lot about Machine Learning, AI, Robotics and its applications in our everyday life. While I have always found Machine Learning algorithms awesome, the process of how the code can make a physical device perform specific actions (think of autonomous cars, smart home systems etc.) have always looked like somewhat “next level” to me. I decided to change that perception and learn how to do it myself. I believe that it’s easier to learn difficult things when you make them fun and this is how I decided to make my own Self-Driving RC car!

The primary goal of this project was to not only deepen my knowledge in Computer Vision but to also learn how to set up the hardware and translate the code into actions. It has already been an amazing learning experience – I learned how to solder wires, code Arduinos, understand circuit boards and I’m sure that there is a lot more to come! In this repository, I would like to share my experience of working on this project and I hope that it will inspire some other curious minds to create something fun and awesome as well! 😊

There are going to be three stages of this project:

1. Hacking RC car with Arduino.

2. Teaching a car to “see” the environment, avoid obstacles and follow the lines.

3. The third stage is going to be a fun application of self-driving RC cars, but before I solve some challenges related to it, I will keep this part secret. 😊

STAGE ONE: Hacking RC car with Arduino

This part is going to cover how to set up the hardware and hack the RC car so it would be controlled by code rather than physical input. Here are the tools which I needed to kick things off:

 An RC car. Any type of RC car should do the job, but it’s probably not worth getting an expensive one because it will have to be deconstructed anyway. I let my inner geek out and chose a shiny red Ferrari. 😊

 Arduino Uno and a connection cable. Arduino is a microcontroller which is going to be used to programmatically control the car.

 Multimeter. A multimeter is an electronic measuring instrument which is going to be used to check the polarity of pins on the circuit board as well as to check if created connections are working.

 Soldering iron and solder wire. They will be needed to attach necessary wires to the circuit board.

 Wires. Male-to-female or male-to-male wires would be best.

 A wire cutter.


Step One: Investigation

Once I got all the tools, I checked if my car actually works as expected. I plugged in the batteries (my car needed five 1.5V AA batteries and one 9V battery for a controller) and tested it out.


Once I was sure that everything works as it should, I was ready to start hacking. My goal was to change how the car is controlled – instead of me pushing the forward, backward, left and right buttons on the controller I wanted to execute these commands programmatically. The easiest way to achieve this is to hack the controller and simulate button presses with Arduino. The first step to achieve this was to investigate how the controller is set up from the inside. After I removed the plastic cover of the controller, this is what I found inside:


There are four pins which get activated once I press the buttons on the controller (forward, backward, left or right). Once any of these buttons are pressed a signal is being sent to a microcontroller through circuit lines. It is also a good idea to unscrew the screws which are holding the board attached to the case and look at wire connections. My car had two main connections – the battery and radio antenna. If preferred, the power supply can be changed by reattaching positive and negative wires to a different battery or power supply (for now I chose to keep it as it is). At this stage, it’s also a good idea to use a multimeter and check the voltage of the pins on the board (especially if you would like to make changes in how the power is supplied).

Step 2: The fun begins – let’s do some soldering!

In order to connect the circuit board and Arduino, I needed to solder four wires onto the circuit board (for each of the buttons). Unfortunately, my circuit board didn’t have free solder pins for this, so I decided to solder the wires directly onto the circuit lines (it’s a bit less elegant way of doing that, but works as intended). To do that I scraped (very carefully!!!) the thin layer of plastic on each of the circuit lines connecting the buttons and a microcontroller.


Once the surfaces were ready I soldered four wires directly onto the scraped areas (it was quite a neat job, because circuit wires were very thin, but with some patience, I pulled it off). I used the wires which had a male connection on one end to make it easy to connect them to Arduino. Once soldered, I used a multimeter to check if all wires were soldered successfully. This is how the result of soldering looked like:


If you have never done soldering before I would encourage you to look up some tutorials on Youtube or the web on how to do it. In fact, it’s not that complicated as it looks like, just be careful and don’t burn your fingers! Before this project, I have never done any soldering, but I found it very exciting and I couldn’t be more proud of myself when connections actually worked! 😊

Step 3: Coding the Arduino

Time to code! The easiest way to code the Arduino is to use an IDE which can be downloaded from Arduino official website https://www.arduino.cc/en/Main/Software. Once installed, plug the Arduino into your computer and open the IDE. Place a zip file called BasicLibrary-master in Arduino/libraries folder on your machine and load it by navigating to Sketch -> Include Library -> Add .ZIP Library.. on Arduino IDE. Once it’s done, load the sample code provided in filerc_car.ino. The code itself is very simple. First I initialised four DigitalPins (for going forward, backward, left and right) and for each of them, I assigned the number of which Arduino pin it will correspond to. The second part of the code is a very simple loop which makes the car move forward, stop for a second, go backward-right and stop for a second again. It’s going to be enough for testing and I also have to get more comfortable with using C++ to write more complicated code. Once the code is written all that is left to do is to verify that the code executes without any errors and upload it to Arduino.

Step 4: Connecting it all together: a Robo-Ferrari comes to life!

It’s time to connect all things together! The key is to plug the wires, which were soldered to forward, backward, left and right circuit lines, to corresponding pins on Arduino. In my code, I initialised digital pins as follows: forward(13), backward(12), left(9) and right (8). This suggests that the wire which was connected to forward circuit line has to be connected to the Arduino pin number 13, backward wire to the pin number 12 and so on.


Once it’s done all that is left to do is to power the Arduino (for now I chose to power it with my computer so I plugged it back to my PC), turn the power on for a controller and see the car coming to life! And here it is – an RC car which is controlled by code!😊


Next on:

In the next stage of this project, I am going to teach my Robo-Ferrari to see things using Raspberry Pi, a camera module, and some Machine Learning!

A link to Arduino code

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