Getting Started in Robotics
Robotics is a fascinating, fun and educational field; however, many people don’t know how to get started. Robotics involves mechanics, electronics and sometimes computer programming. Although these fields can get complicated quickly, the secret is to take it a step at a time. No one has to be knowledgeable or an expert in these fields, but must have the dedication and motivation to learn. Robotics is a learning experience – always!
When getting started with robotics the best choice is getting a robot kit. Kits come with all the parts necessary to build a complete robot. Guesswork and steep learning curves are removed when using a kit. The best part is that there are kits for people who have some experience in the fields mentioned above and also for those who have absolutely none.
A kit allows us to assemble the robot one component at a time. Some kits that are oriented towards education contain workbook and exercises that the builder can do and use to enhance the learning experience. Once enough knowledge and understanding is achieved the builder can venture out and begin to experiment with his or her own designs. Some kits anticipate this and provide room for expansion and experimentation.
The point where you start depends on what you already know and what you want to learn. If this is your first venture into robotics, with no previous knowledge of any of the fields then it is recommended that you look into these fields. Understand the basic purpose of the different electronic components, how motors work and the different kinds that are available, what are gears for and how they help the robot move faster or slower and the basic idea of what a computer is, its components and the concept of a programming language.
Know your robot
There are various types of robots and kits for each one of them. The following list presents some of the more popular types of robots:
Line followers – these robots are designed to follow a line that is painted on a surface. Although this might seem trivial, take into consideration that the robot must know when it is moving too far off the line, when there is a gap in the line and how to stay on the line when it is moving fast.
Light seeker or avoider – These are the simplest kind of robots. Basically, they detect light and either head for it or away from it.
Maze solvers – These robots are similar to, but more advanced than line followers in that they follow a line, but also have the intelligence to solve a maze made up of lines. Usually these robots run through the maze twice. The first time they explore it inch by inch until they find the exit. As they explore they remember which way they have taken. The second time through the maze they use the information they gathered the first time to zip in and out of the maze.
Mini-Sumo – These robots measure 10 x 10 centimeters and weigh at most 500 grams. They are designed to compete against other like robots in a Mini-Sumo match. This game consists of each robot trying to push the other off the playing arena. First robot to be pushed off the ring loses.
Humanoid – These robots resemble a person in that they have two arms and two legs and are able to walk. Normally humanoid robots are designed to compete in a game called “Humanoid Kung-Fu”. The objective is to walk up to the opponent and then try to knock him down.
Walkers - These robots normally have legs that mimic those of an insect. They walk as though they were a spider or insect. While these robots are more complex, they are fun and educational to build.
RoboMagellan – These robots are complex devices that are designed to compete in a competition called SRS-RoboMagellan. This game is played outdoors where a certain number of orange cones are placed throughout the course. The robot must use its sensors, including GPS, infrared or ultrasonic to locate each one of the cones.
LEGO – Yes! LEGO allows robot builders to create fascinating devices. All the robots mentioned above can be built using LEGO pieces and devices.
BEAM – This type of robot is very simple in design and is characterized by not having a processor and by following certain established rules that living things share, such as self preservation. This is an ideal type of robot for the beginner.
Determine what kind of robot is best for you. This mostly depends on what skills you have or want to have and your interests. Get a simple robot if just starting out or a more complex one if you know something about mechanics, electronics or computer programming.
There are many online stores that sell robot kits, such as
Trossen Robotics: http://www.trossenrobotics.com/
Wright Hobbies: http://www.wrighthobbies.net
Robot Store: http://www.robotstore.com
Paradise Robotics: http://www.paradiserobotics.com/
If you have a Radio Shack or Fry’s nearby you can go there and see what robot kits they have. Visit the store or Website to see what options are available. Some of these businesses also sell parts and components which will be very useful once you become familiar with the technology and want to expand your robot or experiment.
Also, use your favorite search engine to locate kits. For example, if you are interested in a Mini-Sumo robot, use the search phrase “mini sumo robot kit”. You will find many options.
Don’t forget LEGO! They have a complete robotics set that includes a programmable robot controller. Search for “lego mindstorms”.
There is a huge amount of information on the Internet. There are many people who are eager to share their experience. Here are just a tiny handful of Websites, in addition to those listed above:
Again, if you are interested in a specific type of robot, you can use a search engine with phrases that include the robot type and words such as “tutorial” “DIY”, “how to build” and other words that convey what you want to do.
Check Out Your School
If you are a student or the parent of a student, check out nearby schools and Community Colleges to determine whether they have a robotics program. Visit the FIRST Website. This is an organization that works with schools and has activities and competitions for different kinds of robots and age levels.
FIRST organizes teams of students, mentors and sponsors that build robots according to a very specific set of requirements. After the building period the robots compete against each other. Teams from across the country and the world compete.
Talking to a teacher or counselor is a good way to find out if the school has a robotics program independently if it is involved with FIRST or not. Some schools have a robotics curriculum based on LEGO or VEX robotics products.
Books and Clubs
Go to www.amazon.com, select Books from the drop down list and search for robot books. Read other people’s comments, just be aware that you may have different needs, so if a comment criticizes the book, it may or may not apply to you. If you are getting started, you can also search for books that will teach electronics, mechanics and computer programming. Other good sources of books are nearby libraries, depending on how well they are stocked.
Locate a robot club near your area. Go to a search engine and type in the name of your city followed by the phrase “robot club”. Help may be nearer than you think!
While getting started on something new and seemingly complex might seem daunting, go for it! As you take each step you’ll see that it is very doable and satisfying. Good luck, and welcome to the field of robotics!