Archive for the ‘Robotics’ Category

The National Robotics Week wants you…

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

to design a superb slogan!

Yes, the second National Robotics Week will be here in 2011! And they are having a slogan design contest.

The rules are simple: You have until December 13, 2010 (and if you are superstitious don’t worry, it’s a Monday, not a Friday, and until 12:01 AM EST – which means you can burn the midnight oil on the 12th and party on the night of the 13th) to submit a 120 word slogan that is inspiring, original and of course related to robotics.

Simple enough?

Why, do you ask must you do this?

It is simple. It shows you are interested in robotics and winning contests of course.

Want to do more? Maybe you can conduct an event of your own, or like me, you could attend one and yet, spread the news! For more information, visit:

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National Robotics Week: Where do you start with building your robot?

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

How is the National Robotics Week going for you? At least one person got back to me and told me that the post was inspiring enough to get them started on building a robot. Bravo! Now that we are that far along, let us take a look at how you could get started with building your first robot.

Before we begin…

I thought I would share some robotics news with you. Did you know that NASA and GM put together a 300 pound robot called “Robonaut2”? NASA is planning to the International Space Station (ISS) and work in the lab! To keep you from straying, I am linking the story at the bottom, not here.

The first step – educate yourself!

In the last post, I mentioned how you will touch on mechanics/mechanisms, electronics, microcontrollers and software among other things in building your robot. There is of course much much more when you build on the complexity of your robots such as design considerations – weight, profile (is it going to be a cube, a spherical robot or what) and so on. I also mentioned you should try to avoid being overwhelmed by all this. If you prepare well and take things in small bites, one step at a time you will get there in no time and maybe you will come back and teach me a thing or two. Whether it is robotics or fly-fishing you always want to have your eyes and ears open to learn from folks.

Where do you learn stuff?

You may be tempted to go out and buy a handful of books. The first step though, is for you to go to the library – your school’s library or a local library near you. If that doesn’t work, use the internet. There are two types of things you want to find out:

1. Learn about robots and robotic applications. Just like Robonaut2, there are hundreds of thousands of robots out there. Reading about what people are doing out there gives you a good idea of what you might want your own robot to do. Of course, there is a more important function that this serves – it inspires to know!

2. Learn what is involved. Pick up a good book on mechanisms. Do you know what the rack and pinion mechanism does? Have you heard of the Geneva Indexing Mechanism? Do you know that you could use a photo-resisting LED to build a line-following robot (more on this later). How about some C programming?

All of us have different inclinations – some of us are more mechanically inclined, some of us are electronics whiz kids. But all of us could use being the Jack (or Jill) who has dabbled in a handful of trades trying to build that gallivanting robot!

Step Two – What do you want your robot to do?

Yes, that’s right. A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. You can’t get to the sea without getting your feet wet (metaphorically) and so on. You do get the basic picture – goals first, crazy building in your basement, next.

In the beginning, take small steps. You might want to build a robot that walks, moves or runs a straight line before jumping ahead to a bot that will walk your dog. So, let’s do that. For now, let’s assume you want to build a very, very simple robot, one that follows a line. You may ask – well why not make it even simpler and just make a robot that says “Hello World” or moves, leave alone follows a line. That is fine. Keep it simple (although sound chips etc. maybe a bit much for a beginner, so a talking bot can wait unless you have the electronics background or the right kit).

Okay, you want a robot that moves, and possibly follows a line. What are you going to need?

The inner workings

At the base level a robot needs to be able to perform a task repetitively and (rather) reliably without constant supervision. To achieve this a robot needs:

1. A breadboard (we will talk about all this in a later post, for now, go with the flow), a protoboard or a microcontroller.

2. Depending on what electronics you choose to control the robot, you will want to think about motors, resistors, capacitors and so on.

3. Sensors – robots need a sound sensory mechanism. How does a robot know it is on the right or wrong path? How does a robot respond to changing circumstances? This could be an IR sensor (the thing that makes your TV remote go for example), a photo-resistor, a temperature sensor, or something even cooler like a Hall-effect sensor (yes, go west and build a robot young man or woman, there is great opportunity to stay excited for life!).

4. Your objective – your path, plan, course or whatever it is that you want to build and use to challenge your robot and show it off to friends and that special person… If you are already tuned into robot contests, you know you could build robots based on several interesting challenges such as the robot’s maximum weight, it’s speed while following a course and so on. In the beginning (and yes, I plan to repeat myself) you want to keep things very, very simple.

Your main goal is to build your robot and test functionality as you progress. Once you have got the basics right, you can challenge your robot as you progress.

5. A hand sketch – yes, make a sketch. If you look at the basic books and websites for images of robots, the electronics, the power source and so on, you get a fairly good idea of what you are building. You need to try and put what is on your mind on to a hand-sketch. It doesn’t have to be pretty at all. It has to communicate and commit to paper what you are thinking.

While you make this effort to translate what is on your mind onto a real bot, you may see challenges along the way. If you plan a solar-powered bot, where do you put the solar cells? Is it better to have a flat roof that spans your solar cells? Do you slant the roof so that you can keep the electronics accessible? If you keep the roof horizontal and flat, the robot has a good profile. However, if the roof is slanted, you can easily access the board and replace any resistors or chips that burn out. The path you take will depend on what you find as you test your bot, or on the challenges you set yourself up with.

In the beginning, I would recommend you look up and build the quintessential “line-following robot”. Later you can think about varying on the theme – using a microcontroller, or a lego kit to add complexity, using solar power along with those heavy 9V batteries, or introduce more variations. Once you gain confidence you can build bots that have “eyes” on them, that is, visual sensors, or build and enter a robot that competes in “Robosoccer” contests. If you really feel like challenging yourself, and have the budget, you could build your own robotic swarm! A swarm of robots is a collection of robots that are very similar in function and work as a team to achieve goals such as finding objects, clearing paths and so on.

6. Budget

Robotics, like photography or golf can be an expensive hobby. So some caution is warranted. Try to pick out books from the library. Cheap out on electronics, scavenge where you can and more importantly, keep things simple by planning ahead. Ask around before buying anything and shop around for the best prices.

Tomorrow, let’s dig even deeper into your first “line following robot” and what you might need to get there.

The NASA News Article

Today’s Resources:


1. Craigslist: –

Yes, the website is the first place to find the best deals all around! Don’t forget to check out Amazon and many other places as well.

2. Jameco Electronics:

I picked Jameco so that you will have a resource to start with. As far as electronics go, there are many other good sites.

That’s all for today. Let’s tune in tomorrow for more fun with robotics!

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Here comes the National Robotics Week…

Monday, April 12th, 2010

The preface: Here comes the national robotics week. It started in 2009 with promises for roadmaps and displays of U.S. leadership in robotics in the 21st century. Most of us engineers though, started by thinking, “Robots, they sound awesome!, I want to build me one of those”.

Then as we grew up, came the craze for R2D2, C3P0 and Lt. Commander Data. Ah, who doesn’t remember the scene in the StarTrek TNG 2×09 where Maddo finally admits Data is not an “it” but a “he”..alright, you don’t have to be that “into” robotic pulp fiction to be a robotocist or a robotics-scientist.

It would be cool for me to promise, and deliver a post each day for the entire national robotics week, but alas, life can get to be a bit crazy. Instead, I will try to simply write a little bit on robotics and hope if you are new, you learn something and if you have been around the block a bit, you simply enjoy the pleasure of reminiscence.

The origin of the word “robot”

Karel Capek (1890 – 1938) a Czech playwright who led a short, yet influential life coined the term “robot” for his play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robotics). The play was about these chemical (yes, not mechanical!) inventions that liberated humans from repetitive tasks at first and then caused chaos because of general unhappiness brought about by “tea party” activists that had nothing better to do. Okay, I stretched a bit – there was more unrest following the unhappiness. Oh yeah, the tea party thing was a lie I made up too.

In any case, given the fact that the “end of the world” has played into the fears of folks across generations, the play was a great success and the name stuck!

Robotics and Asimov

Of course, Asimov is somewhat of a father figure for robotics, given the fact that he was the first to use the term “robotics” in 1947. He did not stop there. He created several characters, short stories and fantasies that will one day take us closer to reality.

However, the most important contribution that Asimov made to science and robotics is well known – the three laws of robotics. You would be in for a big surprise if this is the first time you have heard of these laws. Let’s take a closer look.

The Three Laws of Robotics

The three laws of robotics, purported to be seminal to our permanent slaves, were coined, rendered, broken, fixed and written indelibly into our psyches. Yes, these laws are fictitious, science-fictitious if you want to get technical (you may be an engineer, after all!), they are still very pithy.

Asimov did not simply state three lame laws – robots will like the color red, they will speak Swahili and so on..instead, he conceived of robots as beings with a “positronic” brain, allowing them to possess intelligence that allows them to follow the laws under all circumstances. Therein lies the brilliance. Here are the laws:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

It would be heresy to compare these to Newton’s laws of motion, yet, they have their own status in our minds. The brilliance of Asimov lies in the fact that he was able to spin many a tale that took these laws and their interpretations to the edge of suspense, mystery and tenacity.

What is a robot today?

While a robot may have been seen as a chemical or a mechanical slave to the mundane or extraordinary in human affairs, today’s robots range from the far humbler to the more unexpected, yet pleasant devices. Robots range from the vacuum cleaners to ones that help perform surgery, rescue operations or deep sea explorations.

The versatile robot has many definitions, and many interpretations, however a few basics hold:

1. A robot is an autonomous device – that is, it can perform independently based on a concise set of instructions. So, is your car a robot? Not unless, given a road map and an instruction to start, it can start and drive itself to the destination.

2. A robot can perform repetitive or specifically designed tasks autonomously.

Does it sound a bit too mundane? Only till you see that first robot in action or till you build the first one. Of course many people prefer to give complex definitions to robots. However, the above two definitions should suffice to define the most basic or the most complex robots alike.

The reach of robots

Just today, as I was finishing up the blog, I came across an interesting article about the discovery of the world’s deepest undersea vents with the help of a robot titled, “Autosub6000”. Discoveries such as this are changing the way we think about robots and their influence on our lives!

As the National Robotics Week progresses, I will try to put together more on these wonderful devices that have captured our imagination!





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