By James Cott
The Time Is Right
The field of hobby robotics is more exciting today than ever before. The day when you will have a humanoid, walking, talking robot in your home that will do your cooking and cleaning looms ever closer.
Short of having a real robotic maid or butler, there are many other options that can be built today on just about any budget. If you really want to enjoy a fun, reasonably priced hobby, you should try to build your own robots.
There are many reasons why it makes sense create a robot from scratch rather than buying pre-made ones.
The technology that exists today staggers the mind in not only how advanced it has become, but also in how cheap it is to purchase. There are microcontrollers today that literally replace a room-sized computer of the previous century. The cost for such controllers can be well under $100 for a more-than-capable unit. Some can be purchased as kits to assemble and learn about computer architecture and electronics, others are pre-built units and some even come as single boards that are ready to “plug and play.”
Sensors for hobby robots have increased in functionality while they have also reduced in price. It has gotten to the point where advanced sensors like ultrasonic range detectors and infrared distance sensors even come with robotic toys like the Lego Mindstorms kits. The accuracy of these sensors is astonishing and affords the robotic hobbyist with very high-precision instruments capable of providing ample functionality on even an entry-level robot.
To program or Not
It was formerly the case that many of these microcontrollers required a high-level understanding of computers, binary math and assembler language programming to operate. This restricted the field to schooled adults or older children with a great deal of mathematics background.
Today, many of these robotic products come with a computer interface that allows “building block” style components to be visually ordered on-screen in a graphical editor which allows even younger children the ability to understand logic programming and control-flow logic structures in an easy to understand format. These same programs usually also allow code-level programming to be performed as the student gains an understanding of the high-level logic. This allows them to get “closer to the metal” of the processor’s native language and architecture while providing skill-building opportunities.
Even more interesting for some, is that many of the common hobby robots have their loyal fan following, usually very technical people, who like to push the limits of the platforms. Often you can find compilers or interpreters written to support programming in other languages. This allows the clever and curious inventors to use their robotic for other purposes while learning ever more technical skills. You can often find more than one website devoted to groups like these.
Attack of the Toys
If you are not as interested in learning programming software, you can also take existing toys and use them as a springboard to more advanced uses. Toys like the Furby of yesteryear gained a following by inspired experimenters who took them apart, rewired them, and put them back together in their own vision, to perform functions not intended by the original manufacturers.
Radio controlled toys are also an excellent springboard for robot development as they take care of a common problem with robots, locomotion. One of the persistent problems creating a robot from scratch is how to propel your robot accurately around the room. Motors require careful selection, knowledge of velocity, gearing and other complex formulas in order to operate accurately. Robots like the iRobot Roomba have solved these problems and thus it makes sense to reuse the work they have done rather than re-inventing the wheel. Pun intended!
Also, battery power can be tricky to learn and many of these platforms take the guesswork out of creating rechargeable platforms that won’t run out of juice after a five minute stroll around your home.
Reusing these technologies allows the experiment to concentrate on higher-level functions like navigation, vision and other robotic applications that may be more appealing to the robotics enthusiast.
If you have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for the opportunity to dive into hobby robotics; I hope you don’t wait any longer, but decide to build your own robot this year. There has never been a better time to get started.