What’s a robot anyway?

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!


1. http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Mechanical-Engineering/2-12Fall-2005/CourseHome/index.htm

2. http://www.seattlerobotics.org/

3. http://www.hbrobotics.org/

4. http://www.chibots.org/

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