Getting Started in Robotics

Hello again. This is Robotchef with this weeks article about robotics. This week we are going to discuss several ways to get started in robotics.

So how do I get started?

Get Help!
The single most important bit of advice I can give to a budding roboticist is to get help. Any activity is more fun when done with a group of like minded people. Such a group of people can offer help and encouragement as you work on your project. In addition you get to see their projects grow.

There are several ways to find this kind of help. Firstly, look for a robot group in your area. In the previous post I mentioned The Robot Group which operates in the Austin, TX area. The Dallas Personal Robotics Group operates out of the Dallas, TX area. The easiest way to find such a group is to use your favorite search engine with the words “robot” and the name of the city where you live.

If a live robot group is not a good choice for you, there are still a lot of live resources you can tap into. One such resource is forums. Forums are a kind of bulletin board. As a member, you post an article. Other members read your post and can make comments on it. For example, you could ask for recommendations for a micro-processor developers kit and get recommendations from other members of the forum. One such forum is the Society of Robots. (Hint: Forums can be a very useful way to find out about a lot of things. Try looking for forums the next time you are stumped by a problem.)

Still another way to find information is newsgroups. Newsgroups are a predecessor of forums that date back to the beginning of the internet. Newsgroups generally require a bit of software to gain access and you may have to pay to access the service. Most e-mail clients support newsgroups. You will want to contact your internet service provider about newsgroups to see if that is included with your service. A guide on how to get started is here. Here is a sample list of robot related newsgroups.

Lastly, another live way to use the internet to connect with people and learn about robots is e-mail lists. A simple way to look for such a group is to go to groups.yahoo.com or groups.google.com and type “robot” in the search area. Another way is to use your favorite search engine on the terms “robot” and “mail list”.

Membership in such a group is not requirement to build a robot, but it can add a lot to your robot building experience. After you get the hang of robot building, be sure to help other new members of whatever group you join.

Read!

Besides the internet, there are many many books on the subjects for robotics. Everything from getting started to the latest techniques in navigation or using robotic limbs to manipulate delicate objects.

For beginners, I personally recomend Mobile Robots by Joseph L. Jones and Anita M. Flynn. This is the book I got started with. Even if you do not want to build the two example robots in the book, you can learn a lot about the techniques used for motor control, sensors, and other things. As a note, it appears that the second edition of Mobile Robots is the subject of a lawsuit between Anita M. Flynn and the publisher A.K. Peters. All things being equal, I think I would recommend the first edition of the book.

In addition to books, there are also several magazines of interest to the robot building community. Two of these are Nuts and Volts and Servo Magazine

Finally, you should never forget the WWW. In addition to the forums, newsgroups and e-mail lists discussed earlier, there are Wiki’s, blogs and just plain old fashioned web pages. These will cover general robotics and also specific technologies that go into making a robot. (For example using accelerometers for dead reckoning navigation or a tilt sensor.)

OK, but how do I get started?

Right you are! There are three ways to get started right away. You can buy a kit. You can take an existing bit of electronics and ‘hack’ it or kit bash it. Lastly you can build one up from scratch.

Robot Kits

The world has a plethora of robot kits ready for you to build and requiring a range of skill. The great grand-daddy of all robot kits is the Heathkit Hero. A more recent but also wildly successful kit is the LEGO Mind Storms. Once again the internet is your friend and a search on your favorite engine can give you nearly endless lists for kits of all difficulties.

Kits are convenient. All the parts needed usually come with the kit along with detailed asembly instructions. All you need are some tools and some time. The downside to kits is that you may spend more time building them then in undestanding the principles used to make the kit work.

Hacks and Kit Bashing

The word hack has a long and varied history. In the case of this blog it refers to one of two things. Firstly hacking can be the art of taking an existing system, such as the iRobot Roomba. Check out “Hacking the Roomba“, and many other websites for things you can do with these little guys.

Kit bashing is the art of taking several kits and making something totally different or something far in excess of the original intent of the kits. It is a term that comes over from the Model Building community, but applies well to robotics.

As a homework assignment, I would have you look around you for things that you could hack. A good place to look is the toy department of whatever store you are in.

From Scratch

“In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” Carl Sagan

Of course you can always build your robot from scratch. You, and only you, get to make every decision of design. Will it be pink? Will it have a flame thrower?

The downside to this is that in order to make every decision, you have to know quite a bit about everything that goes into a robot. While hacking the Roomba limits you to a smallish round disk, you also get quite a bit of engineering taken care of for you. The power supply, recharge, and motion control is already designed into the package. Your hack adds on to it.

But if these limts are too, well limiting, you can always go from scratch.

In this case it is good to know about some of the small parts providers that you will be needing to get that from scratch robot out of your head and on the pavement.

Small Parts Inc.
DigiKey
Allied Electronics
Newark
Fry’s Home Electronics

OK Now What?

First, I hope this article has inspired you to reach out to the robot building community near you so you can learn more. Second, I hope it has inspired you to look around you and see what kinds of things you can turn into a robot.

The next article is going to be more nitty gritty detail. I am going to do a tear down of the toy I am going to hack. We are also going to start with a schematic. (I promised nitty gritty detail.)

See you next time!

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