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Getting Started With Robots
with randofo

Building robots is fun, easy, and can be done by nearly anyone. You don't need to be a genius and no prior engineering experience is necessary. The only thing required is a willingness to experiment, and learn. While it is easy to be intimidated by robotics because it incorporates a wide range of skills over a variety of disciplines, there is no reason to be. The fundamentals are actually quite -- well -- fundamental. In less than a month you can learn the basics necessary to begin building robots on your own. Whether you are a hobbyist, aspiring engineer, artist, scientist, or just plain curious, follows is a pathway you can use to begin your journey into wild world of robotics.


Over the first half of the class we will build three simple robot-like creatures, which will introduce you to basic construction techniques, mechanical systems, and electronics. The second half of the class will be dedicated to building a simple telepresence robot that can be controlled over Skype. The aim of this class is to introduce students to the concepts and methodologies necessary for them to begin building their own robots. By the end of the course you will have learned just enough to be comfortable beginning building robots on your own.

Randy Sarafan is an artist, designer, inventor, and founder of the Instructables Design Studio. Over the last 10 years he has created hundreds of step-by-step tutorials on diverse subjects ranging from pancakes to self-driving robotic queen-sized beds. He has authored two books, 62 Projects to Make with a Dead Computer and Simple Bots. His work has been showcased by the NY Times, Popular Mechanics, The Today Show, The Tonight Show, NPR, the BBC, Core77, Boing Boing, and the National Enquirer (to name a few). Some of his notable projects include the aforementioned Robot Bed, some Creepy Teeth Candy, a Light-Up Color Changing Guitar, the Existential Emergency Phone, the Discreet Pants Fly Checker, a Robotic Drum Set, a Flamethrowing Jack-O-Lantern, and the world-famous Clap Off Bra. He currently splits his time between Brooklyn, NY and the internet. His favorite food is pizza.


What Is a Robot?

There are many schools of robotics, and many thoughts about what constitues a robot. For argument's sake, follows is the definition we will be using moving forwards.


A ROBOT IS:


Autonomous

It has motors (or other actuators) that enable it to move freely through space without human input.

Intelligent
It has a computer that allows it to reason, solve problems, and make decisions about its behavior and the environment.

Responsive
It has sensors which enables it to sense and respond to environemental stimuli.

Social
It can interact with other autonomous, intelligent and responsive beings.


An Extremely Brief History

The term "robot" is derived from the Czech word "robota" which translates to forced labor. It first appeared in the science fiction stage play R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots) in 1921, as a critique on mechanized labor.

This first appearance was long before the advent of modern computing technology. As such, robots largely existed in the realm of science fiction as a means of expressing both the hope and anxiety of the modern age. Eventually, by the 1950s, the technology was able to begin to make pace with the mythology and the first robots were born.

The earliest robots were largely developed by the US military and various research universities (in support of US military applications). They used crude solid state and vacuum tube technology and were very - very - large.

As solid state electronics miniaturized and got cheaper, so did robots. This made robots progressively more advanced and available to all. As more people got access to robotic technology, the field grew and mutatad in various directions.

One interesting shift is that when robots become more pervasive in everyday life, the social implications of robotics has become as relevant a field of study as the technological innovations. We finally hit a point where reality has caught up to science fiction.

That said - let's begin.


About Our Approach

There are many different approaches people take when trying to make robots. Most people are familiar with the humanoid robot (like the Terminator) or the 'intelligent machine' robot (like Johnny 5 from the Short Circuit movie). While the humonoids tend to look like people, and the intelligent machines don't, what they have in common is that they both solve problems in some way through artificial intelligence that mimmicks human cognition. Additionally, they replicate some form of human behavior. While those approaches are interesting, it is not what we are going to be learning to build in this class. It's much easier to make another human than it is to make a convincing humonoid robot.

The robots that we will work towards building are going to take a rather different approach. Instead, they will stem from a school of robotics that believes robots should not outright mimmick humanity, but be allowed to be themselves as robots (a robot is as a robot does). While they can mimmick attributes of life and evolution, they should not be mandated to replicate existing living creatures. In this class we are more interested in the approach that allows robots to exist in their own reality.

Okay. Basically, these robots will be designed to have behaviors which function largely independent of human concerns, but also being part of this world, engage socially with other cognizant creatures such as people and scared house cats. Hopefully that makes sense.

That said, machines that exist for their own sake are fairly obtuse, and I tried to balance that out in this course by making a few bots which are put to service towards human ends. We are making both a crude cleaning bot and a more advanced telepresence robot. So, when your friends and family inquire about what you made over the course of this robot class, you can at least present them with something mildly functional.


Bricolage

Throughout this class we are going to be employing the practice of bricolage. What this means is that we will be creating our robots out of a diverse array of commonly available parts. The value of bricolage is that you don't need to source any expensive or exotic parts, or learn traditional machining and fabrication. This allows you to get going in building robots quickly, and easily. Rather than solve problems of logistics, we can spend our time solving problems of robotics. The truth is, anything can be used to build a robot.

While you may be under the preconceived notion that you need to get a host of fancy materials to build robots, this is not the case at all. One of the wonderful things about our era of mass production is that we are perpetually surrounded by so many things, chances are you can find the part you need already made. It is just a matter of looking at things differently, and putting the pieces together appropriately. Rather than see things for what they are (in intent) we need to look at things for what they are (in form).

For instance, let's examine the fly swatter we are using for the Single Motor Bot lesson. We don't need to craft something new when the perfect robot body already exists masquarading as bug squishing tool. Additionally, it is made of an easy material to drill and cut through. It has an abundance of pre-made holes in its design, which makes attaching things easy. Most importantly, plastic fly swatters tend to come in a variety of rad colors.

It's just a matter of considering what you need to get done and what pre-existing parts can do that for you. Walk around the hardware or dollar store. Pick things up. Examine them at weird angles. Hold them together and consider the implications. The store employees will think you are derranged, but that is how quick and dirty robots are made.


Required Materials

Now that I have explained the techniques and methodologies being employed, it should come as no suprise to you that there is not a general set of building materials I can introduce you to. The items we will use differ from project to project. Materials will be listed at the beginning of each lesson when necessary.


Required Tools

Tools on the other hand are fairly standard. You will need quite a few for this class, but most of them you may likely already have lying around. Please bear with me while I go over all of the tools we will be using.


Cutting

Let's start with something simple. You will need a pair of scissors. You should already have one of these lying about, and learned how to use them if you ever attended Kindergarten. So... Moving on...

The other razor sharp tool you should have is a razor blade. It is recommended you get something with a nice safe handle like a box cutter.

When a razor blade just won't cut it, you can be sure a hacksaw will. With enough patience you can cut through most anything with a hacksaw. This hand saw will be extremeley handy to have around.

Diagonal cutting pliers, or put simply, diagonal cutters, are an extremely useful tool to have at your disposal. It's recommended you get a good solid pair of these, and not one of those discount ones. These will be used a lot to cut through plastic, metal sheets, and rods. This tool is a bit like scissors for plastic parts. No - it is exactly like scissors for plastic parts.


Grabbing

Speaking of pliers, you are probably more familiar with the kind that don't cut. You should get at least one pair of general use snub nose pliers. Pictured here is a multipurpose tool centered around a pair of pliers. If you have the income at your disposal, you may as well invest in a nice multipurpose tool. The added functionality always comes in handy and it will make you seem more legit to have one of these in your arsenal. A big part of practicing robotics is looking like you know what you are doing.

Adjustable wrenches come in a wide range of sizes. You are likely not building truck-sized robots and will be fine with just a small one (or two). These are largely used for tightening and loosening nuts and bolts, and it is best to have one for each side.

Having a couple small C-clamps around can't hurt. In fact, they are meant to hold things down so you don't get hurt. It's good to have a few of these about for holding things when drilling or smashing things. Using your hand for this purpose can end in disaster.

Sometimes you really want to hold something right where it is. This is when a bench vise comes in handy. It's a bit like a C-clamp, but attaches to your workbench and has a wider grabbing surface. It is quite useful for holding something down really well while drilling it.


Drilling

Go get a drill. This can be a cordless or corded drill. It does not matter. Cordless drills are more convienient in some ways, but corded drills are cheaper and just as (or sometimes more) effective. Either will do the job. We are only going to be drilling through plastic parts and some soft metal like aluminum.

It is not important to get anything too fancy. Just about any drill will do for the purposes of this class. Albeit, it couldn't hurt to spend a little extra dough if you plan on continuing building things after this class. Nevertheless, the most important part is to find something aesthetically pleasing. I can't stress how important it is to look good while building robots.

Get a set of standard sized multipurpose drill bits. If this is your first time doing something like this, any old set will do. Don't spend a lot of money. You will likely destroy them and need to buy another set at some point anyhow. As you start to figure out what you are doing, then you can invest in the fancy expensive drill bits.


Fastening

Even though you can technically screw things very tight with your power drill, sometimes you just want to screw things the old fashioned way. It's good to have a range of screwdrivers in your arsenal. While I am not going to dive too deep into this, I will say that you should get a set of mini screwdrivers. These will come in particularly handy when dealing with robotics.

Nuts and bolts are used for fastening things together. It's good to have an assortment lying about. That said, I will specify the ones you need before each project.

Zip ties are the greatest. They are quick, strong, reliable, and dirt cheap. If you make a mistake, they are exceptionally easy to undo. Building things using zip ties lets you iterate quickly and try out different solutions. You can chain them together, or trim them down. They can wrap around strange angles and be used to solve all kinds of problems. If you have not already deduced by my effusive praise, they will be the fastener of choice in this class. It is important that you get a lot of zip ties in a variety of sizes.


Measuring

Aside from making great construction material, it is very helpful to have a few rulers around. As they say, 'measure twice - cut once.'

And, of course, if you are going to be employing rulers in your robot-building activities, you got to have some permanent markers to go along with them. We will be making a lot of cut and drill marks, and your marker will get a lot of mileage.


Smashing

When all else fails, smash things.

We are only using one smashing tool - the trusty hammer.

On occasion we will need to smash things. It is unavoidable.


Electronics

Working with electronics requires its own unique set of tools. Foremost, the tools you will need before anything else is a soldering setup. This includes a soldering iron, soldering iron stand (or holder), cleaning pad, solder, and desoldering braid. When purchasing a soldering iron, the only important thing to keep in mind is you want one with a fine tip suitable for electronics. For instance, a soldering iron for automotive or home wiring is not ideal. Otherwise, you are just getting started with this so any cheap-o iron will do. You can upgrade to a nicer soldering setup later when you are more comfortable working with electronics. You can likely find a soldering kit that includes all of the things I listed. I recommend taking this route to begin with.

Electronics also has its own set of cutting tools. You will want both a wire cutter and a pair of mini diagonal cutting pliers or "snippers." The wire cutter used for cutting and stripping insulation off of wires. The snippers are used for trimming away excess wire leads after you solder. When you are doing this for a while and become more legit, you can use snippers for everything (in place of the wire strippers).

Another indespensible set of tools is heat gun and shrink tube. These are used for insulating soldered wire connections and small components. You might be thinking that electrical tape can do the same thing and is much cheaper. Just - NO! Get that horrible thought out of your head. Electrical tape is dumb and unreliable. If you want your robots to break in mysterious ways, use electrical tape. If you want to make working robots, then you should purchase shrink tube in a variety of colors and sizes. Shrink tube is exponentially more reliable and aesthetically pleasing. In terms of a heat gun, they all basically work the same. Just get something that makes you look cool. For instance, this black and green Kawasaki one is fairly rad.

Jumper cables (or test leads) are used for connecting wires together without soldering and are important for prototyping. They have insulated alligator clips on both ends which allow you to easily grab onto most electrical contacts. It is important to have these lying about to easily test things before making more permanent connections. Get a set of about a dozen-or-so to start.

We are going to go over wire more thoroughly in the next lesson. For now, let's just talk about what you should have on hand. You should have a set of 100' spools of solid core 22AWG red, green, and black wire. You should also have a set of 100' spools of stranded 22AWG red, green, and black wire. Both stranded and solid core wire will be used throughout this class. These three colors are particularly important to have because they are the standard within electronics and used for color-coding.

Again, the breadboard is something we are going to go over more thoroughly later. For now, let's just say that you should get one that ideally looks approximately like this picture.

I'm not going to explain this one too much right now either. Don't worry if you are confused by what this thing is. We will get deeper into that. The Arduino has an entire lesson dedicated to it. In the meantime, pick up two Arduino Uno boards. One will be used for prototyping and the other will live in our telepresence robot.

While you are at it, you may as well pick up a USB-A to USB-B cable. This is otherwise known as a USB printer cable. You may even have a spare one lying about. This is necessary to program the Arduino.

Continuing with the theme of things I will explain much more later, I bring you the multimeter. Like most tools there is a wide range of multimeters from the extremely basic cheap ones to the extremely fancy expensive ones. To get started, I recommend buying a cheap one. Make sure it at least has a digital display. Otherwise, they all typically have the same basic features.

Battery holders are used to power your projects. Typically, when one is required it is specified in the list of materials. However, in some of the lessons we use them for testing and experimenting. That said, it is recommended that you pick up a few extra 3 X AA and 4 X AA battery holders.

LEDs are a helpful component to have around, and you will want a mix of those at your disposal.

Lastly, you will want an assortment of resistors. These are one of the most basic electronic components, and you will be using these throughout the class.


Preparing to Start

Before getting started, there are a few basic things that need to be done.

Go get all of the tools and materials listed (if you have not done so already), and find a clear table or workbench on which to work.

Get a drink of water. You are not a robot, and it is always important to stay hydrated.

{
    "id": "quiz-1",
    "question": "Building robots is fun and",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "hard",
            "correct": false
        },
        {
            "title": "easy",
            "correct": true
        },
        {
            "title": "terrifying",
            "correct": false
        },
        {
            "title": "huh?",
            "correct": false
        }
    ],
    "correctNotice": "Correct-o",
    "incorrectNotice": "Errr. Wrong. Try again!"
}
{
    "id": "quiz-2",
    "question": "Robot comes from the Czech word robota, which means",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "forced labor",
            "correct": true
        },
        {
            "title": "helpful machine friend",
            "correct": false
        }
    ],
    "correctNotice": "Correct-o",
    "incorrectNotice": "Errr. Wrong. Try again!"
}

{
    "id": "quiz-3",
    "question": "Which tool is <u>not</u> required for this class?",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "A drill",
            "correct": false
        },
        {
            "title": "A hacksaw",
            "correct": false
        },
        {
            "title": "A welder",
            "correct": true
        },
        {
            "title": "A permanent marker",
            "correct": false
        }
    ],
    "correctNotice": "You got it.",
    "incorrectNotice": "Errr. Wrong. Try again!"
}

CLASS PROJECT

Share a photo of your finished project with the class!

Nice work! You've completed the class project