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Getting Started with Robotics

Page last updated: 12/21/2017

There are many different options for getting started with robotics, several of which are listed below. Regardless of what you decide or if you are having trouble making a decision, come to our monthly meetings. You can see what others are working on and ask questions to help you get going.

Hack Something into a Robot

People sometimes convert (hack) a toy into a robot. The challenges are figuring out how the toy works and then how to hack it. This can be tough since there may or may not be a guide. It's always worth checking the Internet but be prepared to figure it out yourself. Cleverness and ingenuity are often required to save the day but the hardest part is often figuring out the programming. If you are a programmer by trade this may come naturally to you while the other stuff may be more difficult. There are a few fortunate individuals who are skillful in all the disciplines of robot building (electrical, mechanical, SW design and dev.). Most of us aren't so gifted so we need all the help we can get. That's where the SRS meetings and workshops come in handy. You'll be surrounded by people with all levels and types of skills. Odds are someone there can help you. That's how I got started. But this isn't the easiest way to get going. Fortunately, there are now ready-to-go kits that significantly ease the pain.

SRS Workshop Robot

The SRS Workshop Robot was designed by SRS members to be an affordable starting platform appropriate for beginning and intermediate robot builders. With it you can explore basic robot design, construction, and programming using a complete package consisting of all the mechanical and electrical parts you need, an well-designed integrated development environment (IDE) that runs on any type of computer you may have, connects to your robot via a USB cable, and includes excllent step-by-step instructions for testing and using everything.

Once you have a kit, come to our monthly workshops for assistance building and programming it. The SRS Workshop Robot uses an Arduino UNO mounted onto a Parallax Boe-bot Shield robot platform. The kit then adds a variety of interesting sensors that give the robot the ability to sense things around it (feelers, IR emitter/detectors, ultrasonic) and under it (emitter/detector array) such as light/dark contrasting lines. These sensors can be combined to give the robot a personality and tracking/following/avoiding behavior.

The robot kits are available for purchase at our monthly meeting by anyone interested. Monthly workshops are offered after the meetings to help you along and the wonderfully detailed manual provided with each kit that walks you through the mechanical and electrical construction and provides detailed programming exercises using all the different sensor systems included. You are always welcome (and encouraged) to bring your robot to our monthly meetings to seek assistance, ask questions, and work on it.

Kevin's Robot

Another option for a robot project is based on this guide written by SRS member, treasurer, and former president, Kevin Ross. This robot was actually a kit built long before the all-inclusive packaged kits available today. It is controlled by a board based on the Motorola 68HC11 chip, a popular 8-bit controller introduced in 1985. The board, called a "BOTBoard1", was developed by Marvin Green and sold through his company and by Kevin Ross through the SRS for many years. Programming this board wasn't simple, but SRS members stepped up to the challenge and developed a software/hardware system (SBASIC) for doing it. Many robots used this controller.

Kevin's robot avoids obstacles using forward facing left and right IR emitter/detectors and a cleverly suspended plastic bumper skirt that activates one of four microswitches. It is driven by a pair of RC servos modified for continuous rotation (before these were available commercially and had to be hacked, literally). Check out a Google search on robots built with the BotBoard1 controller. This robot project probably can't easily be duplicated today since newer controllers have replaced the BotBoard, but one could build a robot like this one using modern components (such as the SRS Workshop Robot kit) fairly easily.

Robotics miniFAQ for Beginners

The following information is dated but may still offer something helpful. There are lots of good tips and resources, though some may no longer be available. Check out the Robotics miniFAQ for Beginners by John Piccirillo.

A Message From the Author
The "Robotics miniFAQ for Beginners" is a general introduction to amateur robotics that should be especially helpful to those getting started in this fascinating hobby/obsession. It contains links to sites with extensive robotic links, a guide to introductory books and magazines, a list of suppliers where you can find the specialized parts needed for robot building, a section on sensors for mobile robots, an introduction on easy-to-use microcontrollers, and a list of sites offering robot kits. All of this material, except for the kits, comes from my or my senior design students' personal experience. I hope you will find the miniFAQ useful.

There are many robotics related FAQs on the web these days. Click here for a sampling from a Google search for "Robot FAQ".

Encoder Articles

You can find lots of information (though dated) on a variety of topics in the Encoder articles. Look for information referenced as "basic" or "beginner" using the website searchbox. We hope to bring it back from its oh-too-long sabbatical sometime.