Twilio Balloon Bot Challenge

Hardware and Programming: Mark Kleeb, Jack Kalish


Mashable approached me about building a sort of "battlebots" video for their website. After some back and forth (and concerns about building robots that destroy each other), I suggested two robotic arms that can compete with each other without breaking themselves in the process.

I came up with the Balloon Bot Challenge. We'd set up two uArm robotic arms and control them using the Twilio API over SMS. Viewers could text the arms different commands like "up", "down", "left", "right", "forward" and "backward" to try to pop the most balloons in a given time. I cut small serrated ninja stars that the arms could hold using a built-in vacuum pump.

In order to build this pipeline from SMS to actual uArm motion, there were a few intermediate steps. First, the best way to control the uArms was through the Processing sketch that came with the hardware. We tried writing commands directly to the arms, but the motion was awkward and not very fluid.

Second, we launched a Python app that could send OSC messages to the Processing sketch to handle the different types of motion. If Python received an "up" command, it would send OSC to move the arm up a few degrees. We had control over the amount of movement, but we wanted to keep it minimal so many people could send messages at a time.

Last, Python was running on a localhost to communicate with the arms on a local machine, but the Twilio phone numbers needed webhooks, so we needed a way to push that local Python server to the cloud. I used ngrok to create a tunnel to a custom subdomain so the SMS messages could post directly to our local Python app.

Facebook Live

When the arms were ready to go, we brought them to the Mashable office and launched a live video on Facebook Live. Over the course of an hour, viewers could text one of the two numbers on the screen to control the arms. Over 30 balloons were popped, and over 100,000 people tuned in to watch.

Twilio $BASH Festival

Later that year, I was invited to San Francisco to showcase the Balloon Bots at Twilio's annual Signal Conference. The Balloon Bots were part of the afterparty $BASH. Attendees could earn a stamp in their passport - which could later be cashed in for prizes - if they won the balloon bot challenge.

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