Introduction To Robotics And Robot Making
The Terminator. R2-D2. BB-8. Megatron. WALL-E. For years, robots, automatons or otherwise synthetic assistants have been part of our popular culture. While they’ve mostly been restricted to the silver screen, thanks to increasingly affordable and powerful electronics throughout the last couple decades, building a robot has never been easier.
Although robotics is more accessible than ever (such as the MeArm illustrated above that you can build with nothing but a screwdriver and enthusiasm), any robot is a complex system and requires a basic understanding of electricity, mechanical design and programming to create. Never fear! This article will walk you through the elements of robotics, custom robot design considerations, what’s needed to start building a robot PLUS tons of design ideas to spark your creativity so you can sell your bots for a profit or cleverly use them to build a brand.
While making robots can be challenging, there’s nothing quite like taking raw materials and making them come to life. Let’s get started!
The Elements Of Robotics
These days, there are endless kinds of robots being built by amateur makers and engineering companies alike. And the capabilities of these robots are growing exponentially. Just look at what Boston Dynamics has built. Atlas, as it is known, can not only walk but also do parkour.
Now that’s some high-level stuff! While Atlas is probably not going to be something you build at your kitchen table or in your mom’s basement, it has many of the same characteristics of less complex builds such as combat bots or autonomous remote control cars in that every robot begins with the same four essential robotics elements.
Making robots move is a crucial part of robotics design. This is where designing mechanisms, or mechanical engineering, comes in. While mechanical engineering speaks more broadly to machine design, robot designers will be specifically focused on motors and gears, and how to best use them to get the motion desired from their robots.
This usually involves prototyping individual moving parts before attempting to put the whole robot together, but it can be as simple as adding wheels to a DC motor. The level of complexity depends on the kind of robot intend and the way the robot will move.
If designing mechanisms is new to you, the book Making Things Move by Dustyn Roberts is a good place to start.
Another fundamental skill required for building robots is circuit design, a.k.a. electronics. An understanding of electronics and microcontrollers (such as Arduino or Raspberry Pi) will allow you to make the right choices in motors, components and power for the robot being designed. Also consider both the functionality and physicality of your parts.
A basic understanding of circuits allows makers to build a simple robot (such as an RC car) with plenty of online support, documentation and kits available from the maker community. It may seem like an intimidating part of your project, but luckily Instructables has created an easy guide to basic electronics for robotics to push you in the right direction.
Once you have an electrically sound circuit and mechanisms that are ready to move, it’s time to program the microcontrollers used in the circuit. The microcontroller is the brains of the robot, which needs instructions so it knows how to act and/or react to the surrounding world. (Learn how to choose a microcontroller here.)
For example, a distance-sensing robot needs to be told how to take input from its distance sensor and how use this data to inform its action. In the same way, an RC car needs to know which joystick buttons initiate forward movement vs backward movement vs turns.
The microcontroller chosen will dictate the programming language used and how that program is uploaded to the microcontroller. An Arduino-based robot uses the Arduino programming language and can be uploaded through the Arduino IDE. A micro:bit robot uses the visual learning language make:code and is uploaded through a file drop on the desktop. A Raspberry Pi based robot uses the python language, which can be programmed directly through the chip when hooked up to a monitor and keyboard.
Fabrication—the final step in building a robot—is where the components are put together into the encasement or enclosure made for the robot. With the development of accessible digital fabrication tools such as laser cutters, CNC mills and 3D printers, amateur robot designers are able to make refined enclosures that look professional—without the expensive overhead costs of major manufacturing operations.
The robot enclosure design and chosen materials all depend on what kind of robot being made and the purpose it serves. While enclosures are practical for extending the mechanisms and protecting the precious electronics found inside, makers can also use enclosures to give the robot personality, express the intended interaction and offer feedback on how to use the robot.
Custom Robot Design Considerations
Once the four elements of robotics are understood, it’s time to talk about design considerations. This includes everything that will impact the design of the robot: The environment it will traverse, the power needed to move, the senses it needs to perform desired tasks, the materials to make the body/chassis and the overall aesthetic style.
Will the robot move and, if so, what kind of terrain will it navigate? Does it need to withstand any amount of dust or water ingress? Outdoor elements don’t come into play as much if the bot will be kept safe from the elements in your home office. But imagine where the robot will go and how much environmental abuse it needs to withstand. This impacts your choice of materials, the design of robot mechanisms and the overall enclosure.
Will you choose the freedom of batteries, or can you live with your robot being tethered to a wall for power? Every motor, sensor, processor etc. needs some amount of power, so you must determine how much power each component draws and how long you want the robot to be operational so you can factor power requirements into the overall design.
It may seem trivial, but choosing the right kind of power system is one of the more constraining aspects of robot design. As such, it’s smart to consider the power system first before designing any electronics project. And always remember to choose electronics parts that are rated for the power system being used and vice versa. Too little power and the parts won’t work, while too much power might fry the parts.
Need to avoid the nearest wall? You must have a proximity sensor. Want to follow the sun? Grab some photocells. Interested in turning on when someone is nearby? Motion sensors please. There are countless sensors you can interface with any robot. Consider all the different kinds of information the robot needs to acquire from the physical environment and how this data can be leveraged to make the robot move as intended.
Body/Chassis & Material
How much will the robot weigh? Will popsicle sticks work, or have you entered into custom machined aluminum territory? Are there practical attachment points for sensors? How secure is the battery and can you easily access it for a hot swap? The body of the robot can be as simple or complex as you like, but arguably the best robot designs allow for flexibility, which facilitates an agile prototyping and build process.
One of the coolest examples of how material choice influences how a robot operates has come out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). This real-life Transformers-style robot uses sheets of smart material that fold into specific shapes when controlled by magnets. This gives the robot a shape-shifting ability and allows it to walk, roll, sail and glide. Read all about it here.
Once all of the utilitarian requirements are covered, the fun can begin. How will you add personal flair to your bot? Giving the bot facial expressions is one way to add personality, and the PopPet (a fully open hardware DIY robot kit) is a fantastic example.
With its interchangeable faceplates, PopPet can express different personalities or moods. Want PopPet to be surprised, sad, happy or even turn PopPet into a cat? There’s a faceplate for that. And since this is an educational robotics platform, there aren’t restrictions on how much you can actually modify the PopPet, making it easy to learn what goes into making a robot without any prior mechanical or stylistic knowledge.
Most makers pursue designing a robot because they have a task to be automated. While creating practical robots is fun, sometimes designing ones that are impractical can be an even more exciting challenge. Thus, no conversation about robots would be complete without mentioning Simone Giertz’s Shitty Robots. While in pursuit of automation, these craptastic machines make everything worse and more complicated! Read more about her in this TechCrunch post.
Whether you’re making a shitty robot or one that’s potentially award winning, the overall robotics design process is generally the same. From defining the problem, researching and designing, and creating a prototype to building, testing and evaluating your robot, you’ll definitely want this checklist from Galileo to keep your project on track.
How To Start Making Robots
Ok, enough thinking. Let’s do something already! Here are the practical steps to take and the materials needed to really build a real robot.
How To Construct A Robot
If you’re creating a robot design from scratch, it can be quite overwhelming, so why not learn how to make a simple robot by following a tutorial? Instructables is chock full of user-submitted builds for bots of every caliber, and there’s even an online robotics class to walk you through the process.
For even more robot-centric design, the Let’s Make Robots community is not only all about building robots but also sharing the nitty-gritty details and challenges encountered when doing so. It’s really a great resource and has one of the friendliest bot-building communities around.
Buyer assembled kits are a popular choice for those that want to learn how to build, code and play with robots. This is a great way to initially get into making and also a viable way to sell complex creations. A really neat robot kit by Petoi (who specialize in pet robots) is Nybble. Nybble is described as the world’s cutest open source robotic kitten. Its purpose is to make programming and robotics easy to learn and understand, all in one cute package!
Robot Design Software
Any vector design software is a great beginning tool for making things such as mounting plates and simple chassis, and you can get by for many years using just Adobe Illustrator, a home printer and access to a laser cutter for most designs.
But to make custom robots, you’ll want to add a CAD tool to your belt. This kind of 3D modeling is essential for more intricate designs, and Fusion 360 is a great multi-purpose CAD tool.
If you want to tackle more elaborate concepts without needing a degree in computer science, check out EZ Builder from the EZ robot folks. It is much more accessible robot maker software for tasks such as computer vision and motion control.
Robot Hardware, Parts And Tools
Sure robotics can turn into an expensive endeavor depending on how elaborate your robot’s functionality is, but it doesn’t have to break the bank. For a investment in few tools and robotic accessories, you can accomplish a lot with a very little:
Photo courtesy of Maciej Wojnicki via Flickr Commons
– Soldering Iron
– Helping Hands
– Wire Cutter/Strippers
– Flush Cutters
– Benchtop Power Supply
– Small Screwdriver and Bit Assortment
– Hot Glue Gun
– Battery Holders/Compartments
– Resistor Assortment
– Power MOSFETs
– Toggle Switches
– RC Analog Servos
– Raspberry Pi
Hobby King is one of the best resources for RC components and all things drone related. With a huge catalog, the selection of motors and servos is one of the best for DIYers.
Robot Shop has a little bit of everything. Plus, it’s one of the only resources for the high-end components that you’d struggle to find elsewhere.
Sparkfun not only offers a great selection of components, breakout boards and kits, but it also has tutorials galore plus a yearly autonomous vehicle competition that’s not to be missed.
Adafruit has one of the largest spreads of sensors, displays and components around. Plus, there’s high-quality documentation for nearly everything sold.
Thrift Stores have a treasure trove of old printers (in particular) that are chock full of decent DC motors, gears, pulleys and other mechanisms, all of which are quite salvageable.
Robot Design Ideas
Robotics is a broad field, and there are many types of robots that you can build as a product to sell or use promotionally to build a brand. Here are some of the main classes of robots for inspiration.
A robot with wheels is one of the best designs for beginners to tackle. You can get started with just a couple of motors and some decent-sized batteries to roll a wheeled robot along. Wheels allow a quick form of locomotion and are the cheapest way to get bots going.
Having two rear-mounted wheels allows for differential steering, which is one of the simplest means of robotic directional control. Parallax’s BoeBot is a very common wheeled platform that offers a lot of features in a standard little package.
Why complicate things? If you want to skip all that programming business and stick to simple robot ideas, the quite humorous Randy Sarafan has you covered. He’s designed many different simple bots that use a variety of household materials and require minimal wiring.
While his ideas aren’t laser cut, they’re too clever not to include in the discussion. We’re kinda partial to the Skitter Bot, which came into this world “as result of a chain reaction of exploded of cosmic energy.” According to Sarafan’s current estimates, this chain reaction took roughly 13.7 billion years to complete. When put into such context, it becomes quite clear just how long it takes for a near-perfect walking scrub brush bot to come into being.
But don’t be fooled by its simplicity, though. This kind of scrub bot didn’t just materialize overnight when Sarafan zip tied a bunch of scrub brushes together. No! “There was an ineffable cosmic plan that led up to this bot’s creation, going back well beyond the day when man, through genetic mutation, first evolved the ability to manufacture zip ties and scrub brushes,” he says. “This bot is a bona fide cosmic child.”
In addition to cleaning, robots can remind all those born without a green thumb to water their plants. These Plant Friends contain a moisture sensor system that monitors the air temperature, humidity and soil moisture of indoor plants, and they send alerts via email or text message when plants are thirsty. Your geraniums will thank you.
Alright, so there’s not much of challenge when your main hurdle is spending a few dollars on a mass-manufactured robot toy. Not only can you learn from the mechanisms the robot already has, but once your robo-skills have improved, you can tear your store-bought bot apart and use the chassis or precious internal electronics for your own designs. RC cars or tanks are great, cheap ways to get a prebuilt drive mechanism that can easily be expanded upon.
There are toys that you can tear apart and rebuild, but why not start with one meant to be built and rebuilt? The Lego Mindstorms series has come a long way in the past years and is now a powerful, yet accessible, robotics exploration kit. Ignore that age label on the box because this platform is for everyone. It’s a wonderful way to try out new designs without the cost of consumption you’d have with other robots.
If you’ve ever hosted a miniature sumo-bot competition, you know that once the battles begin, it’s really quite thrilling. Building a fighting robot gives your design a better sense of purpose as the goals are clean cut and the stakes are quite high!
If you want to build the kind of thrashing, fire-breathing monster you might find in TV shows such as Battlebots or Robot Wars, then be prepared to spend in excess of $10,000. Luckily, combat robotics has many-a-weight-class that spans from nano-weight to super heavyweight behemoths, so you can find a style that matches your skills and budget.
If you can’t find a local competition, why not start your own? Combat robotics is much more about community than conflict, and would give your newfound group a regular goal to work around that leads to better participation.
Walking may seem like second nature to you and me, but for robots, it’s one of the most challenging builds.
Bi-Peds: Humans, birds and (occasionally) apes walk bipedally. And there’s good reason there’s not an abundance of bipedal locomotion in nature. Walking upright on two legs is actually a form of controlled falling, and it requires complex synchronization of many different muscles and constant adjustments to control the center of balance. You’ll often see “walking” robots that actually shuffle around with short steps to better keep upright, but some are more than meets the eye.
While building a biped that moves around like a person is a significant challenge, less experienced robot builders can get started with their very first biped with Otto DIY. This sweet open source robot comes with a downloadable 3D model for printing the body as well as all the electronics/programming you need to get Otto going. You can build Otto in less than a day and be able to say that you built a functional biped!
Hexapods: Six legs are better than one (or two, or three…). Hexapods are some of the most common legged platforms since they are inherently more stable, and the algorithms for locomotion are, while complex, still simpler than those required for a tall biped.
If you’d like to tackle one of these electronic insectoids, invest in a few more piggy banks. Since the most common designs require three servos per leg, the price tag for even a basic hexapod can be quite hefty. Though once you’ve got it stable, you can do some crazy things with your platform.
Making drones and racing robots has never been easier and more affordable. Thanks to the explosion in cellphone technology, motion sensors have become faster, cheaper and more capable. Because of these advanced accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometers, keeping track of a robot in 3D space is now possible for tinkerers of every skill level.
Multicopter drones require precise measurement of their position so they can hover and produce stable flight. While you can buy individual components for flying robots, it’s increasingly common to find controllers that have most of the electronics integrated, so you just need the motors, battery, remote and a frame (which can be easily laser-cut).
When it comes to drones, the Shendrone by Andy Shen is cost effective with structural material laser cut from bamboo ply, and a snap-fit assembly means no glues or screws to slow down the construction process. That’s about as easy peasy as it gets.
Once you get the hang of flying drones, you might want to strap a wireless camera on board and enter the growing sport of drone racing. These high-speed aerial robotics competitions are quickly gaining popularity around the world. Who wouldn’t want to fly?
Don’t worry art students, the robots are coming for your future job, too. But the good news is that you can take a pass on your basket weaving class and upgrade your projects with a basket making robot. Then take all of the inventory and open your own basket boutique. To entice customers to come in, use this friendly bot (made from laser cut MDF) to decorate your storefront windows.
What if your customers want more that baskets? Diversify your product line and start selling custom decorated eggs thanks to this incredible Egg Bot.
Fancy a new wall for your home? Laying bricks is backbreaking work. Thankfully, this robot arm has no back to break and will happily lay bricks in an elaborate pattern so long as it has power…and plenty of bricks, of course.
Need an intricate geometric lattice for your minimalist lair? These “metabolic” robots can assemble trusses for elaborate structures much like organic systems.
Perhaps you are looking to solve homelessness across the globe, or maybe just offer an affordable housing solution to desperate millennials. These days, 3D Printing Home Robots are an exciting prospect for affordable housing options. The incredible machines can print homes for less than $10,000 and in less than 48 hours, making house building cheaper and faster than ever.
Bringing Robots To Life
We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible in the wide world or robots that you can make to sell or use to build a brand. It’s a very broad and deep field that incorporates numerous facets from both the arts and sciences in order to produce a working thing. That’s the fun of it though, the challenge, the risk of failure and the possibility of bringing an idea to life.