Jan 30, 2017

Capturing and Decoding Lego Mindstorms EV3 Bluetooth Communication

The Lego Mindstorms EV3 robots can be controlled with an Android app (Lego Mindstorms Commander) communicating with the brick via Bluetooth. The command protocol is documented by Lego in the EV3 Communication Developer Kit and the commands themselves in the EV3 Firmware Developer Kit (get them from Mindstorms Downloads).

I wondered what exactly goes on and I decided to capture the communication and decode it, to learn both about Bluetooth and about the details of the EV3 protocol.

Good Robot. Good Robot!!

I succeeded and made a couple of useful tools along the way:

See also the previous post about sending data (EV3 commands) over USB.


  1. Enable Android Bluetooth logging
  2. Run the Commander app and exercise the robot a bit
  3. Transfer the log to a PC
  4. Extract the serial data (RFCOMM) from the Bluetooth dump
  5. Decode the EV3 protocol
  6. Disassemble the EV3 instructions

1. Enable Android Bluetooth Logging

  • Open Settings
  • In the System section, choose Developers (this needs to be enabled first by tapping Build number 7 times)
  • Enable Bluetooth HCI Log

2. Run the Commander app and exercise the robot a bit

3. Transfer the log to a PC

On the phone/tablet:

  • Open Settings
  • System > Developers
  • Disable Bluetooth HCI Log

Connect to the PC with a USB cable.

My older Android phone offered to mount its storage as a USB disk drive, but the newer one no longer has that option, offering MTP instead. I transfered the log file with a KDE tool:

$ kioclient cp 'mtp:/Xperia Z3/Interní úložiště/btsnoop_hci.log' .

4. Extract the serial data (RFCOMM) from the Bluetooth dump

The tool I made for this is btsnoop-decode.rb.

I learned the bare minimum needed about Bluetooth so it is very likely the tool only works for this specific use case.

Originally I opened the btsnoop log with Wireshark and guessed my way through the BT protocol layers. In the end the RFCOMM length field was harder than usual to guess and half of my packets were wrong. So I resorted to finding the appropriate part of the Linux kernel source to find out the format.

5+6. Decode the EV3 protocol and dissassemble the EV3 instructions

The people of the ev3dev project have already produced a disassembler which we will use in the next step. But that one assumes you start with a program file (RBF).

Here we have a log containing not only the usual RBF instructions but also System Commands.

I made an ugly hack of the lmsdisasm tool and arrived at a version that disassembles the log produced by the RFCOMM extractor.

Play time

The above experiments enabled me to put together a little script that can control the robot from a Linux terminal, having it ride around and even speak a custom sound file: lethargic-ministers/lms.py.

Jan 2, 2017

USB Communication with Python and PyUSB

Say we have a robot with a USB connection and command documentation. The only thing missing is knowing how to send a command over USB. Let's learn the basic concepts needed for that.

General Bunny catching Pokemon

Installing the Library

We'll use the pyusb Python library. On openSUSE we install it from the main RPM repository:

sudo zypper install python-usb

On other systems we can use the pip tool:

pip install --user pyusb

Navigating USB Concepts

To send a command, we need an Endpoint. To get to the endpoint we need to descend down the hierarchy of

  1. Device
  2. Configuration
  3. Interface
  4. Alternate setting
  5. Endpoint

First we import the library.

#!/usr/bin/env python2

import usb.core

The device is identified with a vendor:product pair included in lsusb output.

Bus 002 Device 043: ID 0694:0005 Lego Group

VENDOR_LEGO = 0x0694
device = usb.core.find(idVendor=VENDOR_LEGO, idProduct=PRODUCT_EV3)

A Device may have multiple Configurations, and only one can be active at a time. Most devices have only one. Supporting multiple Configurations is reportedly useful for offering more/less features when more/less power is available. EV3 has only one configuration.

configuration = device.get_active_configuration()

A physical Device may have multiple Interfaces active at a time. A typical example is a scanner-printer combo. An Interface may have multiple Alternate Settings. They are kind of like Configurations, but easier to switch. I don't quite understand this, but they say that if you need Isochronous Endpoints (read: audio or video), you must go to a non-primary Alternate Setting. Anyway, EV3 has only one Interface with one Setting.

interface = configuration[(INTERFACE_EV3, SETTING_EV3)]

An Interface will typically have multiple Endpoints. The Endpoint 0 is reserved for control functions by the USB standard so we need to use Endpoint 1 here.

The standard distinguishes between input and output endpoints, as well as four transfer types, differing in latency and reliability. The nice thing is that the Python library nicely allows to abstract all that away (unlike cough Ruby cough) and we simply say to write to a non-control Endpoint.

endpoint = interface[ENDPOINT_EV3]

# make the robot beep
command = '\x0F\x00\x01\x00\x80\x00\x00\x94\x01\x81\x02\x82\xE8\x03\x82\xE8\x03'

Other than Robots?

Robots are great fun but unfortunately they do not come bundled with every computer. Do you know of a device that we could use for demonstration purposes? Everyone has a USB keyboard and mouse but I guess the OS will claim them for input and not let you play.

What Next

The Full Script