John Holbrook

About FaRCX

How, why, and where the FaRCX project came to be

In the early 2000s, as NASA prepared to launch the Spirit and Opportunity rovers to Mars, The Planetary Society and the LEGO Company collaborated on the Red Rover Goes to Mars project, which sought to "provide hands-on opportunities for students around the world to participate directly in real missions to Mars." The project included online contests to name the two rovers, and specially-made silica glass DVDs containing the names of participating students were affixed to the landers of each spacecraft and sent to Mars.

Also as part of the project, the Planetary Society produced a piece of software, appropriately called "Red Rover, Red Rover" which aimed to simulate the experience of remotely operating a Mars rover, using LEGO Mindstorms RCX robots. Organizations could host so-called "Mars Stations," which were small dioramas, each modeled after a different area of the Martian surface. Inside the diorama was a LEGO® robot, with an attached camera, which could be remotely controlled and viewed over the internet using the RRRR software.

At peak, as many as a dozen Red Rover sites, physically located around the world, were available online. One* of them was located in Huntington, West Virginia, USA, where I grew up; it was operated by Linda Hamilton. Part of Linda's job was to travel to various local schools to conduct educational outreach programs using LEGO® products, and this was where I first met both her and her Red Rover site in approximately 2007. In addition to the hands-on LEGO activities she prepared, a visit from Mrs. Hamilton usually involved driving the Rover from across town, and occasionally learning (via the visitor's log) that someone accross the world had driven the rover.

Over the years, I became more and more interested in robotics. I began participating in FIRST LEGO League and, eventually, working with Linda to help develop educational materials, conduct day camps and other children's robotics programs, and other similar activities. Over time, the Red Rover Goes to Mars project faded into relative obscurity, but Linda's RRRR site stayed up, and remained a central part of the activities she conducted. Sometime around 2011, we came to the conclusion that Linda's site was the last remaining Mars Station online. In the fall of 2012, the station (and the rest of Linda's lab) moved from the now-former Nick J Rahall Appalachian Transportation Institute site to a much larger space located in the Marshall University Science Building. Despite the sensitive nature of moving what was by then a lot of old, fragile computer equipment, the Station made the move successfully, and operated out of the new lab for just over a year.

Towards the end of 2013, it became apparent that the continued use of the Marshall Science Building facility would no longer be possible. After watching a couple of unsuccessful attempts to find a facility which would be willing to host the site, I offered to take on that role, and in December 2013 we moved the Mars Station to a spare bedroom in my home, where it has remained since. Not long after, in March 2014, Linda passed away suddenly. In the years I knew and worked with her, I saw firsthand how her educational outreach, of which the RRRR site was an integral part, brought joy and enthusiasm to hundreds of students, and as such I resolved to keep the site alive in her memory. For the remainder of 2014 the site stayed up, still running the Red Rover software.

Even before Linda's death, she and I and Philip Taylor, another student who worked with Linda on various educational projects, had begun to discuss the inadaquacy of the now-outdated RRRR software in light of modern web technologies. The project ran on old, long-hardware, sent a series of still images at approximately 1 frame per second instead of streaming video, and featured a web design straight out of 2001. We discussed replacing the RCX with a newer NXT, and using the already-existing Kleekbots platform for remote control. However, that software never worked very well in our testing, and we liked the hardware features of the existing RCX robot better than anything we might build using NXT parts. However, writing new software to control an RCX presented its own challenges: driver support for the IR tower (used to communicate with the RCX) was nonexistent for 64-bit Windows, and software to program the bricks, let alone send control commands in real time, was getting harder to find, install, and run over time. So, the project was postponed.

In December 2014, Philip discovered that drivers for the IR tower are included with versions of the Linux kernel newer than 2.6.1, which was sufficient motivation to begin writing new software that would replicate the functionality of the old RRRR software. Because we are not affiliated with the Planetary Society or the LEGO Company, it was necessary to choose a new, different name for the new software. We came up with "FaRCX," because an RCX is controlled from afar. Sometime in January 2015, what I'm pretty sure is the last Red Rover, Red Rover site went offline for good, as control of the rover was transferred to FaRCX running on Ubuntu 14.04 LTS on a more recent computer. I still have the computer which ran the RRRR site for 10+ years, and have dragged it out for demonstration purposes at maker and educational events on a couple of occasions since retiring it, though given the fragile nature of old hardware I'm no longer very inclined to do this unless I'm confident I could recreate the setup on other hardware if something broke.

FaRCX was written mostly by Philip, though I contributed to writing some of the web pages, and I retain may of the hosting and administrative responsibilities. It's primary advantages over the old RRRR software are that it runs on modern hardware and operating systems, is open-source, uses modern web technologies, supports proper streaming video (rather than a series of still images), and has two video streams, one offboard and one onboard. Originally, a DB-9 Serial IR tower was used, requiring an additional power plug and complicating the setup; however, in summer 2015, RCX enthusiast and FaRCX user Brian Johnson very kindly donated a USB IR tower, which has been dutifully serving the setup ever since. Brian also sent us another RCX brick, which has gone on permenant loan to Philip, allowing him to continue development work on FaRCX and other RCX-related projects.

Since taking over the hosting of the rover, I've begun attending college about 70 miles away from home, which has at times made it difficult to quickly repair the setup when it breaks. Software problems are easy to fix remotely, but pressing, say, the power button on the RCX can necessitate a time-consuming drive in the middle of a busy week. Further, a still-occasionally-used spare bedroom is not exactly an ideal place to store computer equipment requiring, among other things, a constant light source. Some day, it might be nice to find a local organization or museum that would be willing to devote a small space to hosting the project, but this is a low-priority item. I'm not actively looking for such an organization at this time, but nonetheless if you run an educational organization, childrens' museum, or outreach program within approximately an hours' driving time of Huntington, WV, you're welcome to get in touch.

*In the early years of the project, Linda also operated another site for a time, in a classroom at Davis Creek Elementary School. I have in my possession the computer used to run that site, though its memory has since failed - one of these days I'll find some vintage RAM on eBay and get it working again. Jump back