A Chronicle of my Robot Building Adventure

(Originally posted Oct 8, 2013)

I’m starting a new hobby!  For years, okay decades, I’ve wanted to know more about electronics and robotics.  As a computer programmer, some of my most satisfying and fun jobs have been those where my software interacted with devices in the real world.  There is just something satisfying about writing code and watching it affect something in the real world.  After watching the recent advancements in small computing and the wealth of knowledge available on the intrawebs, I finally decided to get off my rear and actually do it.

I am going to build a robot.

When I told my wife Teri about this new endeavour, she encouraged me to write about it as I go.  First, she knows I like writing but she also thought it might be interesting to our adult children, any future grandchildren and even my future self.  And if you throw in the handful of friends that are technically oriented AND patient enough to read my ramblings, the readership for this blog could zoom up close to double digits!

I can hear what you’re thinking… “Build a robot, eh?  Isn’t that just a tad ambitious for a software guy that doesn’t even know which end of the soldering iron to hold?”  Yes.  Yes, it is.  But go big or go home.  Or as I like to say – “If something is worth doing, it is worth overdoing.”  Admittedly, I am starting from ground zero where it comes to electronics.  It will take me weeks/months to work through tutorials on basic electronics and fundamentals of microprocessor programming.  That’s okay.  The whole point is to learn something new that I’ve always been interested in.  The goal isn’t the robot.  The goal is learning how to build the robot.

While the first order of business is gathering all the basic supplies and working through some electronics tutorials, it is good to have an end goal in mind.  What kind of robot should I build?  Obviously this robot from the movies should leap to mind pretty much immediately.  (The first person to point out that this is a cyborg and not a robot gets the Pedant of the Year award!)

Terminators display a superb level of commitment to mission completion

Pros
It would be a freaking Terminator!  That would be awesome.  Plus, the starter electronics kit I have on order has some red LEDs that I can use for the eyes, so I’m almost halfway there, right?

Cons
Terminators tend to leave a trail of death & destruction behind them.

Okay, maybe a Hunter/Killer robot from the future isn’t the best conceptual model to start with.  How about a nice robot who loves nothing more than helping humanity and whuppin’ up on bad robots?  Optimus Prime and his crew of Autobots are unquestionably Good Guys and sometimes keep the level of destruction to a minimum.

Optimus Prime in both of his configurations

Pros
If Earth ever gets threatened by evil robots from Outer Space, then I will definitely get a spot on the evening news after my robot saves the planet.  Plus, he turns into an 18 wheeler which can come in very handy when helping people move.

Cons
Not only is this a bipedal walker and a wheeled roller, it is also capable of air and space flight.  Multiple transportation modalities may be a bit of a stretch for current human technology.  Plus, I would probably get into trouble with the Teamsters since he is (sometimes) an 18-wheeler and I don’t have my union card or CDL.

Looks like I have to continue the search.  The next candidate is less well-known in popular culture but trust me, it is a robot of the highest caliber.

The Bolo Mark XXXIII Planetary Siege Unit is the top of the line in cybernetic defense platforms.  The Bolo is fully autonomous and capable of strategic self-direction. Far bigger than the other two candidates, the Mark XXXIII masses 32,000 tons and sports three fully independent 200 cm HellBores.  As far as I know, no-one on my block has one yet.  Not to brag about my ninja-like powers of observation but I would have noticed one in my neighbor’s backyard.

When your planet is under siege, who you gonna call?  Bolo!

Pros
Bolos are unswervingly loyal to humans and fire a plasma bolt traveling at 97% the speed of light from their 200cm HellBore.  (If you don’t understand why that is a pro, then you definitely need to read more science fiction.)

Cons
Talk about “rollin’ heavy”.  This beast is strapped.  The ATF and CSPD will be way up in my grill when it starts rolling around Colorado Springs with HellBores and triply redundant fusion reactors.

After weighing the pros and cons of each, it looks like Terminators, Autobots and Bolos may not be good choices for my motivational design concept.  Don’t get me wrong, each of them is very cool and would make fine projects later on but right now I need something that doesn’t require unknown technologies, time travel or unobtainium to build it.  It would also help if I could keep the budget under $1000.  I’m pretty sure that even the smallest component on any of those guys would break the bank.

Instead of fictional robots, perhaps I should look closer to Earth, or perhaps Mars, for my robotic role model.  I have always been a fan of space exploration and the most successful space missions in recent years were Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Those two plucky guys did a lot with a little and exceeded expectations.

Spirit and Opportunity were “peaceful” explorers (according to NASA)

While I’m not going to send my robot to Mars, I want it to be similar to these two intrepid craft in that it will be an autonomous scientific explorer.  It will have a variety of sensors installed and be capable of lengthy periods of self-guided action coupled with remote control when necessary.  It will sport a robotic arm for picking up survey samples and a way to communicate with Mission Control (me and my laptop) the entire time it is active.  My goal is to navigate a path at least ¼ mile in distance, retrieve a sample and return to base.

So what’s next?  I haven’t gone into any details on the design but I’ll give you a hint, I’m checking the mailbox everyday for some components I’ve ordered.  I already have a Raspberry Pi and I’m waiting on an Arduino and an Arduino-compatible motor shield. The Pi will provide Guidance and Nav functions while the Arduino will provide Control of the sensors, actuators and motors.  For those of you in the spacecraft and/or robot biz, that completes the Guidance, Nav & Control triad.

Once the parts start arriving, I’ll start with some small projects and work my way up to more complicated ones.  Eventually, I will be able to build the vehicle I described above. Along the way I’ll post pictures, video and commentary of each project.

Sounds like a big task, right?  Yes and no.  It isn’t like this has never been done.  It just hasn’t been done by me.  Will I succeed or will I just end up with a pile of parts on my kitchen table?  Stay tuned and find out.

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