BY JAMES FLOYD KELLY
I built my first robot at age 7. It was made out of parts from an Erector set and stood about three feet tall. It had arms and legs and wheels under its feet. A (very weak) motor was supposed to make it roll forward, but there wasn’t enough tension on the rubber-band pulley that would have transferred the motor’s spinning to the wheels. Still, I was quite proud of its red and steel-colored parts. A year later, Star Wars would provide me with even further motivation to owning my own robot when I watched R2-D2 accepting Princess Leia’s mission to find Ben Kenobi. Throughout my young life, an interest in robots always existed — at times the interest would fade as I discovered other interests, but it always came back.
It would be a decade after graduating from college (with some basic background in electronics and robotics thanks to an engineering degree) before I was invited to join a LEGO beta team for the Mindstorms NXT kit. Here was a reasonably priced robotics kit that actually delivered on its promise — building autonomous robots. (I’m a purist — if you use a remote control to steer or control your device, it’s not a robot. Sorry, SyFy — Robot Combat League needs to be renamed unless you can figure a way to have the robots duke it out all on their own. Two contestants driving the action does not constitute robot combat.)
I enjoyed the NXT robotics kit, and I wrote a number of books on the subject. The NXT (and its predecessor, the Lego RCX) have opened doors for kids around the world to explore robotics, and I’m certain the upcoming Mindstorms version, EV3, will offer even more opportunities for kids (and adults) to build, program, and learn when it is released. I’ve been invited to speak to teachers and kids in and around the Atlanta area about Mindstorms robotics, and it never gets old seeing the kids’ faces when they go hands-on… I imagine the look on their faces probably matches the one on my face so many years ago. They ask some great questions, pose some interesting technical problems, and almost always want to show off their latest robot design. And when the smoke clears (literally, one time!), there’s one question, asked by kids, teachers, and parents, that always pops up:
Where do I (we) go from here?
Thirty years ago, I don’t know if a good answer would have existed. But today? A list of options could run for pages. Normally when I visit schools, I haul along a box of books that I allows adults and kids to look over — these run from general books on robotics to very specific topics. And honestly, the pile of books has gotten so large that I can’t take them all anymore… I’ve had to be much more picky. Kids love to know how things work, and one of the most important recommendations I make to kids (and their parents and teachers) is to start looking under the hood. Lego robotics is a great start, but the plastic housing keeps a lot of the magic hidden. This is probably a good thing, though — pull apart a Lego ultrasonic sensor or light sensor and a kid risks damaging the component so its useless to anyone else needing to use it. The same goes for the Lego programming — the drag-and-drop blocks make understanding the basics of robotic programming so much easier, but kids are limited to only a handful of changes that can be made with each block — change the speed of the motor, for example, or the spin direction. Other blocks satisfy the black box style of programming — enter a number or check a box and something just works. There’s no real grasp of what’s going on underneath.
I mention these items not as complaints, but as simple limitations that push a percentage of kids to dig deeper. And once they dig deeper, there really is no going back. Moving out of the world of Lego robotics involves a change in one or more areas of expertise. Kids will need to start developing a deeper understanding of electronics. Programming knowledge will need to move from simple drag-and-drop blocks to actual text-based coding in many instances (further requiring a more logical understanding of programming concepts and theory). Assembling a robot may no longer be as easy as clicking two pieces of plastic together. But you know what? Kids eat it up. Whenever I speak to a group of 20 or more kids, inevitably there are 5 or 6 that follow me out the door to my car, asking questions, taking notes, writing down website URLs and book titles. I love it. There desire to learn more is contagious, and it always sparks another wave of my own investigations.
What sparked this post was a simple discussion I had a few weeks back with a mother of a very curious ten year old. Ian loves robots, and his school does offer up a robot club where he’s been able to play with Lego robots. But Ian’s got some serious hacker chops. He’s wanting more than the Lego robotics kits can offer, and his mom was looking for some help. We talked for some time about some other robotics kits on the market (VEX, for example), but this was one smart lady — she didn’t want to spend money on pre-packaged kits. She wants Ian to build his own robots. Ask a hundred educators what they would do here, and you’ll get a hundred different suggestions. I’m not a professional teacher, so all I could offer her was my own experiences and explain the pros and cons of various books, websites, and kits that I’ve explored. This conversation moved to email and dozens of back-and-forth discussions that (I’m not kidding here) she printed out and put into a binder that is quite thick with her own research, book reviews from other sources, and pricing of kits and such from sites such as SparkFun and AdaFruit. All this research done for her ten year old boy who she says finishes up every project she puts in front of him. (I’m going to have to keep an eye on Ian’s future… might be buying stock in any company he ends up working for!)
Below are some of the books that I recommended to Ian’s mom, but this list doesn’t cover a number of books that offer up individual chapters or appendices that stand alone as great references. (Those reviewed here on GeekDad are indicated by an *.)
* Make Electronics by Charles Platt (review here)
* Robot Builder’s Bonanza by Gordon McComb (review here)
Making Things Move by Dustyn Roberts
* Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred by David Erik Nelson (review here)
* Make: Lego and Arduino Projects by John Baichtal, Matthew Beckler and Adam Wolf (review here)
Beginning Arduino by Michael McRoberts
Junkbots, Bugbots & Bots On Wheels by David Hrynkiw and Mark W. Tilden
* Robotics: Discover The Science And Technology Of The Future by Kathy Ceceri (review here)
As I said, there are many more, but these are the books I consistently reach for when trying to answer questions from parents and teachers. I try to encourage teachers and parents to point kids to books and projects that will give them hands-on projects that are more basic… closer to the actual electronics. Given that most of these kids want to continue to build robots, I tell them that advanced robots will require more advanced skills; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid shy away from that kind of challenge. Some kids focus on the electronics, and some focus on the programming. Either way, they win! If an interest in robotics spurs kids to dive deeper into more specific topics, I don’t think that can ever be a bad thing. I’ve run back into some kids (now three or four years older than when I first met them) who blew me away with a robot or special school project that they wanted to share with me, and when I’ve been lucky enough to chat with the teacher or parent, I often get the full story of various improvements — grades, study habits, behavior, and much more.
Before I wrap up this post, I want to share with you two new books that I will be adding to the above recommended list.
Arduino Robot Bonanza by Gordon McComb
Yep, the same guy who wrote the amazing Robot Builder’s Bonanza (now in its 4th edition) that should be required reading for any budding robot builder. Well, McGraw-Hill has had this book listed as upcoming for some time now, and I’ve been very anxious to get a look. I’m happy to report that McComb hasn’t missed a beat. It’s an absolute winner, with discussions starting out assuming no real experience with either an Arduino or electronics. McCombs make it a point early in the book to explain that very few tools will be needed and no welding or metal cutting required… all the example robots that the reader will build will be relatively cheap (in terms of component pricing) and easy to assemble. Now, the programming aspect is definitely not covered in as much detail as some young readers may like, but since the code is available as a download, kids (and adults) can skip over that part of the process if desired and simply upload the files to the Arduino for the respective robots. (If you’ve got someone wanting to get REALLY good with Arduino programming, grab the Beginning Arduino book mentioned in the above list — it’s outstanding in its explanations.)
Robots that are covered include TeachBot, TuneBot, and TeleBot, and complete wiring instructions are provided (both as a schematic and what appears to be Fritzing diagrams) — there is excellent explanations for how to read a schematic and then wire it up, but once again… the simple photograph of the breadboard and all the wiring should suffice for readers needing more assistance. Sensors are covered (light following robots, for example) and lots of suggestions for variations and modifications will make certain that young robot builders have plenty of future projects to keep them busy.
As for building the robot bodies, an entire section is devoted to fasteners, materials (PVC, aluminum, and many more), and construction tools needed (most no more advanced than a simple handsaw). Each robot provides detailed building plans (with measurements) although there are options for buying pre-cut/pre-drilled body parts.
Throughout the entire book, the focus stays on the Arduino, too. There are always side discussions and dedicated chapters on shields, add-ons (such as the XBee that allow wireless communication to and from your robots), and sensors… lots of sensors. While a young reader isn’t going to get a super-detailed knowledge of electronics, there is enough here to light a fire and encourage further study.
All in all, Arduino Robot Bonanza is a superb companion to Robot Builder’s Bonanza. If you’ve got a young robot builder under your roof, either or both of these books will be extremely useful.
Hacking Electronics by Simon Monk
Although not focused on robots, this full-color book is impressive in how it tackles hacking electronics if you’ve not got a solid understanding of circuitry and electronics components to begin with. The author jumps into the subject by offering up early coverage of the basic tools (soldering iron, breadboard) and provides a short and fast tutorial on electronics theory (voltage, resistance, current, power) that’s just enough to get you moving. I tried to put myself into the shoes of someone starting from scratch, and yes… this book removes much of the fear of “doing damage.”
The projects in the book are cut-and-dry — you’re given a very specific list of components and a detailed walkthrough of what to do with it all. This is good and bad — good in the sense that you’re less likely to mess anything up, but bad in the sense that if you’re looking for suggestions on modifying and tinkering with an item, you’ll have to break out on your own. The programming code, for example, is provided but you’re not going to get a deep explanation for how and why the program works (or how it works).
Most of the chapters are broken into sections related to a single components — Chapter 6 covers the basics of the Arduino, for example, and Chapter 8 discusses hacking electronic sensors. If you’re looking for a simple robot project, you’ll find that in Chapter 7 that covers hacking with modules. What the chapter lacks in deep explanations it makes up for with full-color wiring assemblies of the robot along with the program broken into little pieces that are briefly explained.
One of the chapters that I am most impressed with is Chapter 8, Hacking with Sensors. The author provides simple snippets of code for a variety of sensors — temperature, gas detection, color, vibration, accelerometer, and magnetic. With the code, you get a quick explanation of how to make it work; tweaking the proper code settings and the wiring involved to get it on the breadboard. I often find that’s all I want… just give me the fast explanation for how to integrate something into my robot, and that’s what you get here.
If I could change one thing about the book, it might be to move Chapter 10 forward in the book — this one covers taking things apart and not breaking them as well as scavenging components and doing small repairs on broken connections. And for all the projects in the book, the author provides an outstanding appendix that lists every part with its part# and (more often than not) a short list of vendors who can provide each components (and their unique part# when necessary).
There are some really fun projects in this book — hacking a slot car racer, for example. And the discussions on integrating an Arduino into an electronic toy are well done — there’s even a tutorial for controlling the toy (via the Internet) using a shield. Fun stuff.
Read more here.