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Karl Lunt

by Steven D. Kaehler (c) 2001
(photos by Terry Laraway)


This article is the third of an ongoing series of articles that focuses on a specific member of the Seattle Robotics Society, highlighting them, their interests, and their accomplishments.  I hope these articles are an entertaining and informative look at selected members of the SRS, and provide some insight into what makes robot builders tick. This article spotlights Karl Lunt, a software engineer/programmer, author, avid robot builder and experimenter who has achieved considerable notoriety in the SRS and elsewhere for his numerous circuits, machines, and ideas over many years of involvement with the club.  He is also the author of a terrific book on hobby robotics.

So far I've interviewed Gary Teachout and Tom Dickens and introduced them and showed you some of their projects.  My goal continues to be to get deeper into the people who have made and continue to make the SRS what it is today.  This time I interviewed Karl Lunt, a longtime member of the SRS, former club officer (vice president), and published author.  In talking with Karl, I got the impression that one of the reasons he moved to Seattle was because of the SRS and PARTS.  Though this wasn't the most important reason, it certainly was a good one and he didn't waste any time getting involved with the club once he arrived.

Come with me back to the mid-to-late eighties.  Hardware hacking was popular as personal computers and the like were appearing en mass on the surplus market.  Karl was working with other hackers playing around with microprocessor boards down in Phoenix, Arizona.  He comes across a 68K processor board and reverse engineers it over a holiday break.  When he powers it up, it works!  He had so much fun doing this that he even wrote an operating system for it!  This started him thinking about what could be done with this type of board and he was inspired to try to build a robot.  The problem was there weren't any active robotics clubs around Phoenix at the time, so Karl and his wife Linda came to Seattle in 1989 to collaborate with other robot builders in something called the Seattle Robotics Society.

Karl remembers the SRS as a small but dedicated group of people who loved to get together and talk about robots.  He says there were times when the group was so small that a meeting might consist of a handful of people standing outside a closed building on the steps in the rain, but the camaraderie was worth enduring the environmental discomforts.  He is amazed at the phenomenal growth that the club has experienced in the last five or so years and doesn't see any end to it now.  In fact, the monthly meetings have grown so large that it's getting harder and harder to find a large enough meeting place.  Typical meetings are now averaging around sixty people with surges to ninety or more!

Karl is primarily a software guy, but thanks to robotics has learned to operate outside of his comfort zone.  In other words, building frames, hacking holes in boxes, bending sheet metal, assembling gear boxes, rigging mechanisms and actuators, designing and wiring circuit boards, etc. are not his areas of expertise, but by collaborating with others who knew about these things, he learned how to take a little of this and a little of that and put it all together to make a robot.  This is a hurdle anyone considering rolling their own robot will encounter since robotics crosses so many disciplines, and few people (if any) are experts in all of them.  The real challenge and fun of robot building is pulling together these different and often incompatible technologies into a single cohesive unit.  Doing this in the company of other enthusiasts has really helped him over the humps and potholes of this hobby.  He sees great value in learning from the successes and failures of others as well as his own.

Tackle-Bot with Control Computer

Tele-operation of Tackle-Bot

The "Star of the Show" with a convenient 
built-in carrying handle

One of Karl's great strengths and areas of contribution to the SRS and hobby robotics in general has been writing about his experiences.  His writing experience dates back to high school where he worked for four years on his school's newspaper.  Later on he wrote articles for Microcornucopia, a now defunct computer hobbyist magazine.  In the early 90's he wrote for Nuts & Volts Magazine in the form of a monthly column called Amateur Robotics.  He has continued to write articles for N&V and the Encoder (see below).  He has a friendly, easy-going style that is enjoyable to read and very informative.  You can't help finishing one of his articles thinking "I think I can do that."

While writing the monthly Amateur Robotics column, he was under the gun to choose a project, build it, document it in a column, then move on to the next one.  This kept the flow of projects pretty continuous for the six years he wrote for the column.  The popularity of the articles was enormous, even overwhelming, and has followed him ever since he quit writing them in 1998.  After having received too many requests for copies of past articles, he finally decided to compile sixty of them into a book that you can buy.  The book, called Build Your Own Robot, is a tremendous value for the money, providing lots of ideas for motors, driver systems, sensors, microcontrollers, software, etc. as well as a chronological view of the evolution of computers, microcontrollers, and robotics from the early to late nineties.  It's also fun to see familiar members of the SRS mentioned in print.

Karl estimates that he has built approximately four robots per year for the last ten years though you won't find forty of them running around his house.  Most have been disassembled and recycled into the new ones as he comes up with better ways to do things.  In fact, even though most of his projects reach a certain level of completion, Karl is always thinking, "next time I'll try something different."  He always sees better ways to build "the next one".  I don't suppose he'll ever build the "perfect" robot, but he keeps trying.  A project he had been working on when I originally interviewed him was "Danno", name for a character from Hawaii 5-0.  This robot, which Karl is holding in the picture at the top of the article, has since been "recycled" into something else (Karl's unrelenting desire for improvement).

For those just starting out, Karl has the following advice:

Karl sees the SRS moving toward a critical mass where fragmentation into smaller special interest groups is likely to happen.  This can already be seen with the use of 68332 microcontroller boards, Gameboy cameras, precision machining technology, BASIC Stamps, BOTBoards, etc.  There are now so many choices for controllers and the state-of-the-art is constantly pushing their features and capabilities.  At the same time, the cost of ever-more sophisticated technology continues to drop making what used to be limited to expensive R&D-type robots affordable to the average person, and there doesn't seem to be any end to this trend.

The "T5000" portable DOS PC, the heart of Karl's latest robotic project

Karl's latest project involves using wireless X10 technology to permit his robot to control his house.  The platform, named "T5000", uses a neat little mobile DOS PC (shown above) that he picked up from Resources Unlimited.  He hung a little X10 transmitter dongle off a serial port and uses it to communicate with the plug-in X10 modules in his house without wires.  Actually, he sees his house becoming part of his robot (or his robot becoming part of his house?).  He figures this will certainly be the largest robot he's ever built if not the most complex.  I can't wait to see where he goes with this one.  You can read about this project among others on his website.

Karl talking Gameboy hacks with other interested fellows

You can visit Karl's website which contains a wealth of information about many of his projects including his SBASIC tools for HC11/12 and 68K processors.  If you can make the SRS meetings, you'll usually find him with a small crowd gathered around as he shows some cool project he's been working on or reveals his latest find at the surplus store.  He's a fun guy to talk to and has great insights on building and programming robots.

Encoder articles Karl has written:

I want to offer special thanks to Karl for letting me do this article about him.  He's certainly helped me overcome some hurdles and has made robotics more accessible to people through the tools he's created and the experiences he's shared.  His dedication to robotics and the SRS is inspiring.  It's people like Karl who have paved the way for so many of the rest of us.  This hobby wouldn't be where it is today without people like him.  Next time you see him at a meeting, introduce yourself and get to know him. Tell him what you're up to and see what he has to say.  I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

I hope you've found this article interesting.  If you have suggestions, ideas or comments, please email me.  --SDK