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 Building Your First Robot

ARobot Mobile Robot

By Roger Arrick

I get many emails each week from people who want to start building robots. Usually people want to do this from scratch by simply using parts found around the house or at the hardware store and Radio Shack. As a builder of robots for 30 years, here's my take on the subject.

First, let's decide what a 'robot' is. In my opinion, a remote controlled car is not a robot since it has no brain of it's own. It has no way to make a decision on its own. If you want to build a machine that just responds to your remote control, then just use a remote controlled car or other toy. But I don't think you can call it a robot. Even if a robot has an on-board brain, it can still accept instructions from an operator and be called a robot

To be a robot, it should have the ability to think - make decisions. This may sound hard at first, but really any small computer can be programmed to make decisions. Here is an example of a decision that a small robot with a feeble brain could make:


This is a very common 'IF-THEN' statement.

A machine that can perform this instruction is truly a robot. So, the conclusion is that to be called a robot, you really need an on-board brain and a way to program it.

I want to encourage you but I must be honest, building a robot is not easy. Now if you're talking about building a small base using legos and making it remote controlled, then that's pretty easy, but you can't call it a robot since it has no brain. Lego Mindstorms have a brain and we'll talk about that later.

If you want to build a robot from scratch you'll need the following:

Design and build a base. Locate and purchase drive and steering motors. Have access to drill press, band saw, sander (and often a milling machine). Design and build motor drive circuit(s). Design and build a micro controller. Design and build sensor circuits. Learn to program and write programs from scratch.

This is a task that would take a normal person several months or years. In fact, as past president of the Dallas Personal Robotics Group, I've known professional engineers that spent several years just to get a mobile base working.

I'm not trying to discourage you from taking the 'from scratch' approach, I just want you to know what size of project this is. If you are willing to spend many months, much money, and potentially disapointment and discouragement, then design and build your own robot from scratch.

Most people believe that you can build a robot with parts found around the house and that is partially true. I think electric screwdrivers would be a good drive motor (assuming you could find a way to attach a wheel). But there are many things that you will have to purchase. Especially when it comes to the electronics, sensors and microcontroller parts. These items are simply not available in the bottom of a toybox or at your local WalMart.

Most robots built from scratch cost between $200 and $400 for a minimal mobile robot with a brain. Many people spend well over $1000 and some, much more. Almost all believed it would cost much less when they began.

So this becomes the big question: Should I build a robot from scratch or should I start with a kit and build on to it?

You may say, "If I buy it, then I can't say I built it". If you buy a robot in kit form, paint it, assemble it, then add your own sensors and program it, I think is fair to say "I built it".

Even if you build a robot from scratch, you'll still be buying pre-built motors, wheels and other items. So, the real issue is: at what level are you going to build your own robot? Are you going to mine the ore to make aluminum? Design your own chips? Of course not. It makes sense to buy certain items, but what items? That's the question you'll have to answer before you get started with robotics.

            kit         scratch
cost        same         same
time        less         more
learning    same         same
fun         more         less
tools       less         more
design      less         more

Your goals are probably like everyone else's: Have fun, build something I can call my own, learn about robotics, and leave room for future projects.

These goals can all be accomplished whether you build a robot from scratch (DIFFICULT) or build a robot from a kit and expand it (MUCH EASIER).

Only you can make the decision to buy or build from scratch. If you decide to build from scratch, here is a giant list of web sites that help supply you with information and parts:

http://www.arrickrobotics.com/robots.html Robotics Information Centeral at Arrick Robotics

And here are many robots built by others:

http://www.arrickrobotics.com/robomenu The RoboMenu

As you can probably tell, I would recommend anyone wanting to get into robotics to start with a kit. It's the fastest and least expensive way to have a working robot and to learn. If you decide to start with a kit, there are several available listed at:

http://www.arrickrobotics.com/robots.html Robotics Information Centeral at Arrick Robotics

If you think you would be happy with a more toy-like robot, then check out Lego Mindstorms and other plastic construction toys. They're great, but you may find yourself looking for more.

In order to make the introduction to robotics as simple as possible for many people I've created a mobile robot kit for experimenters called ARobot (pronouced A-robot) You can see the web page at

http://www.arrickrobotics.com/arobot ARobot Mobile Robot

ARobot comes in kit form, but the circuit board and cables are pre-built and tested. This allows you to get your robot working in a couple of hours instead of a couple of months or more.

ARobot is made of metal, not plastic or wood like some of the other robots out there. One of the first things you get to do is decide on a paint job for your new robot.

ARobot uses the Basic Stamp II controller which is very popular and very easy to program. There is plenty of expansion room on ARobot and an entire set of web pages that show you how to attach a digital compass, sonar range finder, light sensors and other devices at:

http://www.arrickrobotics.com/arobot/projects.html ARobot Projects

ARobot is VERY expandable. Here is my personal ARobot that has many cool sensors:

http://www.arrickrobotics.com/arobot/501c.html Roger's ARobot

ARobot is designed to be about the same price as a typical 'from scratch' robot but without all the hassle. You'll also find a gallery of images and a frequently-asked-questions section,

ARobot is also the subject of "Robot Building for Dummies" where the reader is shown how to add a temperature sensor, motion detector, video camera, and speech. You can find it at Amazon and at most book stores.

I hope this article helps you without sounding like a commercial. I've been building robots ever since I was a kid and I love helping others do the same.

You're going to LOVE ROBOTICS!


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