Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

What’s a robot anyway?

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

In the spirit of the National Robotics Week, that would be this week, I thought I will take this journey into robotics a bit further. While we all dream of R2D2 and Lt. Commander Data, today’s robots are mundane. The good news about that is the fact that anyone can build simple bots, that say follow a line, or a given path, lift weights, move stuff…the list is practically endless.

How does one build such robots though? Robots usually involve the following aspects:

1. The physical form of the robot. Some of us like wires sticking out of a board, while others among us love to have the robot be properly enclosed. You could get really artsy and make sure your robot is well “dressed”.

2. The mechanisms involved – Robots, by definition tend to move or have moving parts. Yes, you could get all semantic about how it can be a robot as long as it does repetitive tasks – but most robots, like to move and be in shape. Let’s move on.

3. The electronics – A purely mechanical robot can be constructed, yes, but most modern robots love to have some circuits on them to make them more capable and efficient.

4. Power – With all the mechanics and the electronics, the robot needs an “Energizer Bunny” or two…to be completely mobile, robots need a good source of power.

5. Software – Robots need instructions on what to do, when to do it and how to do whatever “it” is that they do. At the very basic level, you could use on-board electronics to drive this. However, as you start adding functionality to your robot, you might want to streamline how the robot reads instructions and performs tasks. You can add several subroutines for situations that you anticipate might arise in the robot’s “lifetime”.


We covered the top line items. Of course, mechanics and mechanisms come with gears, shafts and the like, electronics involve timers, ICs, LEDs, resistors, capacitors and the like. The source of power can be anything from a solar powered battery to a really lengthy chord. You will add or modify these per your design and functional requirements.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed?

Don’t be. While it might seem like you would need a handful of degrees just to construct a simple robot, things are much easier. You just need to start simple, and take it from there. Your robots, in fact will closely resemble your inclination – are you a mechanical whiz? Do you eat a bunch of chips and wires for breakfast? Or can you write a line of code a second?

If you don’t feel inclined in any specific manner, you could buy one of the so many, many kits out there. Or, if you are in college, you could take a handful of classes (that will be discussed in a later post). If you are in high-school, you could attend a workshop or two. Or, go to the library, pick up a handful of books, dig in, build and get started! Maybe your local area has a robotics club or two – some of the clubs have manifested themselves online and offline. Examples include the Home Brew Robotics Club in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Seattle Robotics Society, or Chibot – the Chicago Robotics Club. And, there are many, many more!

Don’t forget to check out resources such as the MIT OCW for some of the best “free” education you can get!

Later this week, I will try to discuss more resources and methodologies on designing robots.

Share and grow

Remember, all these resources I mention have been put together by well meaning folks. You should do the same! Maybe you don’t want to get into robotics for your own self. Maybe all you are trying to do is to encourage someone in your family or community to work with robots. More power to you! Do you know of resources that I am skipping here?

Please feel free to let me know!






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Design nightmares with a simple task – a tale of PBWiki, Spreadsheets, Googles, Gadgets, Mashups and other “tools”

Friday, July 24th, 2009

I love my graduate applicants group. I love my PB-Wiki page as well (and unlike the Subaru guy, most of my loving ends there). I have been planning to start an ambitious project that would help archive our group’s messages to provide future prospective students with resources that they could benefit from.

As a result, I simply wanted a spreadsheet on the wiki site itself, that would motivate me and possibly future volunteers to our wiki site. And there launched an afternoon of adventure in the land of Internet Gobbledygook of mashables, Google Gadgets, Google Docs, Google s*it (yes, they want to be in that too), numsum, dim-sum, and everything in between.

There is almost no simplicity associated with any of these online spreadsheet tools that are heavy on promise and poor on performance. It is one thing to come close to even comprehending what they are saying. It is quite something else to actually apply this on to your website. Among other things that can go wrong:

1. You will never find any documentation and will totally fail on some tools.

2. You will never get some tools to work.

3. You will get some tools but with 10 cells in your spreadsheet and woebegone if you try to increase the size.

The Solution: Two scores and hundred minutes later (alright I exaggerate, but so do politicians), I figured on a very simple, elegant solution from the loser of the day, the 29% lower revenue guy, the 9% decrease in stock price guy, the ingrate of the NASDAQ, and overall champion of evil – Microsoft.

I copied over my group’s database table from Yahoo! Groups, “special pasted” it in Excel 2007 and pasted it back to my Wiki page and lo and behold, I now have a working table! PBWiki knows it’s a table cause of all the kind html that Excel donates, and my life is now back to its elegant simplicity.

My Design Lesson – I will always remember to K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid!


1. For general irritation and inutility – Google Gadgets and their designers. Google the link yourself! :p

2. For my pbwiki page:

3. For my group page for no better reason than to send you there:

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A design challenge or a mole hill that looked like a mountain? – Flash Movies and the Firefox Browser

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

One of the main aims for Designably is to serve as an online portal for free design and engineering education. The goals are lofty, I know, but I wanted to throw content out there, as much as a single guy with ADD can :).  And, with this aim, I downloaded “Question Writer”, a nice little software that helps you create simple multiple choice tests. It took me about 20 minutes or so to think through a few questions and create a test. I was able to publish it out to html in no time.

Pleased with myself, I uploaded it, tested it, and then – decided to circumscribe my site’s basic css design around it. A few hoops later, I decided to use a server side include for the quiz. Then, disaster struck!

The test contained in an Adobe Shockwave Flash Object loaded just fine on IE and even on Chrome. But Firefox and Opera would not do be me any such favors. Specifically, the flash quiz loaded too small as you can see in this image (opens in new window):

I spent a few hours blaming my CSS for it. I went through the sheet up and down, left and right..well you get the picture. And then, I scrubbed the html high and low…I finally landed on this website:

After tussling with everything, I came across the “Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t” solution.

1.  If according to the standards you included:

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN"

then Firefox told you to go stuff it that it was not going to allow flash objects to a reasonable site.

2. If on the other hand,  if you violate the first thing in Web standards, then of course, things work out. That is, you either delete that line above the html tag, or comment it out. Life’s like that I suppose.

Anyway, here are the end results:

I guess you could say it was a “mole hill” and not a mountain. However, it did piss me off to Kingdom come.

What kind of a browser would demand you violate web standards to allow you to play a simple animation?

And guess what, it still won’t work in Opera…!

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