The ability to build robots requires background skills in electronics, automation and similar stuff. There are many aspects for discussion and exploration, but one thing is certain – the best way to get into robotics is to build a robot.
Depending on what you’re looking to do, the robotics industry may serve you as a hobby, as a profession, or both. Regardless of the choice, a huge range of problems is associated with robots. Sometimes reading few tips can help you to handle easily the problems that appear when you build a robot.
Why do we build robots?
There are many reasons. Humans build robots to reduce the effort of other humans, they can work every day doing the same monotonous work, they can work in dangerous places, and they can’t do mistakes like humans.
With hard work and a little diligence, you can start building your first robot, while using the below tips can get you a helping hand.
1. Decide your purpose
First of all you have to find a starting point, a specific goal in mind, an idea of where to start and where will be finished your final robot.
It is easier if you have a clear picture of what you want to do and working towards that goal. Just by sketching your idea on a sheet of paper make things move, makes you to stay focused to dive down into something specific, and keep you motivated by remembering the picture of your idea.
After the robot takes shape on the paper, you have to decide the features of the robot. You have to spend some time to create a list with specifications of the robot, and maybe it will take several prototypes.
Based on this specifications list, you will need tools, budget, and skills.
2. Determine your strategy
Don’t be afraid to start with the most basic exercises or with Internet research. Starting with a specific robot such as a simple line follower, obstacle avoiding robot, or with a robotic kit like Lego Mindstorms EV3 is a very good place of robotics.
I would say that there is a third method from where you can step into robotics. Beside a simple line following robot and a robotic kit, you can get started without a physical robot. You can start with a robotic simulator, while a wide range of simulation software is designed to serve the robotics industry.
Starting with a simple robot engineered to follow a line or avoid obstacles won’t be that difficult. You can use the body and motors of an RC car, and replace the electronics with a single board computer like Arduino or BeagleBone Black, and a motor shield. The next step is to interface sensors and write programming lines for the robot to make decisions.
The Arduino is a single circuit board with memory, inputs, outputs, and microprocessor ready to be plugged into your computer and programmed.
About the best robotic kit that can be used to get into robotics, I would suggest to use a kit with complete equipment and servos, a large community and a good documentation.
The Lego Mindstorms EV3 is a good platform to start digging into robotics and especially if you’re interested in programming. The kit is available with sensors, wheels, a ton of bricks and the intelligent brick that can be programmed in minutes.
If you’re interested in programming and electronics you can find a mix of platforms that combine both fields.
3. Simplify your first try
In a simple search on the web you can find potential robotic projects in order to start digging how other people did things. A lot of articles explain you step by step how to build a simple robot and even it doesn’t look professional, you can copy these projects for your first try.
4. You have to ask a lot of questions
You can put a lot of questions to friends, family, colleagues, to your professors, and ask them about your project and plans, concepts, clarify electronics, mechanics or programming problems, etc.
All of the responses received can be reflected in the final project by taking advantage of their knowledge.
You can ask yourself – WHY? You can ask yourself why you are reading anything, ask yourself why you have to study C++ and not Java, why it is recommended to start building robot using kits, and the list can continue.
With as many questions find their answers, you start understanding the reason behind doing something.
5. Learn to use different types of tools
In robotics you have to work with a wide range of tools including here the classical hammer, to digital Multimeter, electric soldering gun, wire stripper, slotted screwdriver, and many more tools that can be found in mechanical and electrical sets.
6. Learn from courses
Any free professional course is an invaluable resource that you can use for introduction in engineering robots. An introduction course such as ‘Introduction to Robotics’ from Stanford University covers a lot of topics including forward and inverse kinematics, dynamics, motion planning and trajectory generation, position and force control, spatial description, and manipulator design.
From other area is the MIT course called Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, a course that cover from circuit and electronics, up to microelectronic devices and circuits, bioengineering, mathematics for computer science, and many more topics.
7. Learn about the main components of a robot
You have to read and read again, you need so much read that you can start preparing a list with tons of books, blogs, and other online resources about programming, engineering, robotics, design, etc. Beside books, on the Internet you can find a lot of blogs, forums, and social networks from where you can learn about microcontrollers, sensors, motors, how to power a robot, how to design a robot and so on. In general, on the Internet you can find very detailed information about how to build a robot.
All you read about robots prepares you for practice. All your studies prepare you for all the three fields that combined bring robots to life: mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering.
It is essential to learn about electronics, to understand electronic circuits, diodes, transistors, resistors, capacitors, sensors, connectors, etc. You couldn’t build robots without knowing anything about electronics. But don’t worry; be positive, because you have to learn some of the basics.
Choosing the right programming language is a very important step that you should take into account. The robotic industry is like a highway where a large number of cars are trying to negotiate their way. Depending on your focus, you have to choose between Assembly, C/C++, Python, Java, C#, and many more programming languages compatible with certain robots.
For a small platform is very useful to work with embedded programming. In this case you work on a device that provides its proper programming interface.
The basics programming languages in robotics software are the C++ for speed, while Python is a language for rapid prototyping.
Java became useful in robotics if you really want to do artificial intelligence.
C# is popular among robotics since it can run on real-time control systems and works with Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio.
You have to learn about programming, electronics, and mechanics. All these three fields are closely linked with building robots. It’s almost impossible to have a large amount of information in all three or even in two areas.
The idea is to focus on one specialization and get as many results as you can.
8. Keep the weight of the robot under control
The human arm weight around 6% of the total body weight, and this is for example a good ratio between size and weight. In the process of building robots you have to take into account the final weight since a higher weight uses a high amount of energy.
9. Get the robotic parts
When you build a robot you need a long list of robotic parts such as sensors, motors, a frame, wheels or tracks, wires, and many more components.
And because you have to be prepared to purchase robotic parts and equipment, you can explore the below list:
10. Document everything
If you have a smartphone, a tablet, or a laptop, probably you have a manual from where you can obtain information regarding the features. In the same way, every block of code or every line must be preceded by a comment as well as at the start of the code.
11. Try to solve the problem before asking for help
It would be wonderful to solve all problems in a timely fashion without difficulty, unfortunately the reality doesn’t provide this chance. Some of the problems encountered are obviously more severe or complex than others, and it would be helpful to get help from others.
Even if you’re totally lost in the problem, make an effort to solve the problem before starting to ask for help. In this process you can learn a lot of things by searching and reading about the problem.
12. Safety matters
Manual handling is a common source of injury in the workplace and working to build robots can cause various risks. You have to work with power tools such as drills, some batteries may explode under certain conditions, and the list can continue. All of these risks have to be reduced or eliminated through protection and simple operations like walking through the workplace and look for potential hazards.
13. The budget
Building robots is not cheap and you have to make investment in robotic parts, kits, tools, or software. If a light sensor can cost around several dollars, the prices rise for a single board computer, a frame, or a complete kit.
You have to pay attention from where you purchase components, and as an advice, online stores are usually cheaper than local stores.
You can build a simple robot such as line follower or obstacle avoidance under 100$, while the cost estimation is increased once with the complexity of the robot.
14. Try and try again
The first project is the hardest and the experience takes time and effort. After the first project, the things start moving and the effort decreases in time.
A lot of kids, hobbyists, or students were excited to try building robots, and at some point they have probably failed. You don’t have to give up, just keep pushing by increasing the effort and time, while the payoff will come eventually.
15. Share your experiences with others
The Internet changes the way we share. At a click away we can help others to learn everything how to build robots. If you have information, write a comment, an article, or share on several social networks for robotics enthusiasts.
Your experience increases its value if others benefits from it.
You have several instruments for sharing and the most important are the places where you can explore, document, and share your creation such as forums and dedicated websites – Instructables.
16. Be a perfectionist
You have to face with poor planning or organization and the results are bad situations where things can become complicated. You have to adopt the way to make things perfect, and don’t be afraid to do things slower.
Even your work is slower, a good result is more valuable.
I have a lot of hope that reading this article, you have an idea about robots, how they work, what skills you should have, and many more information for a good practice.
Once you finished your reading, please feel free to comment with your suggestion and add any tips or ideas you may have.