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Let's Play Robots!

Not long ago, my gym buddy, Mike, asked me how to get started in robotics. He'd noticed that it was an exciting, fast-growing field that had all the signs of becoming a "glamor" profession. He also knew that I was writing a bi-weekly blog on developments in how robots interact with society. So, he asked me how he could learn about the field.

I wasn't quite sure how to answer him because there are two answers that, depending on your background, goals, and where you are in your life, affect what you should do next.

People ready to choose an engineering career path should look at getting a degree in mechatronics. That's a multi-disciplinary field that combines mechanical, electrical, and computer sciences. To do it right is a six-year, full-time degree program given at a growing handful of universities. You have to be ready to master things like differential equations, project management (mechatronics is done by teams, not individuals), and computer programming. It ain't for the faint hearted!

If you're not ready to dive into the deep end, however, you can still get your feet wet by looking at a smorgasbord of relatively inexpensive kits that introduce regular folks to building and programming robots. You can get a pretty good sampling by typing "robot kit" into your friendly neighborhood search engine. Kits start at under $20 and go up to around $1,000. So, there's something literally to fit any budget.

As usual, we should start by talking about what we mean when we say "robotics."

Robotics, mechatronics, cybernetics, and so forth are all more-or-less interchangeable terms that refer to a sub-field of control engineering. All involve, as I mentioned earlier, mechanical systems, electrical/electronic systems, and computerized controls. A radio-controlled model airplane is not a robot. A programmable thermostat is not a robot, either, although some of the latest ones are coming close. To really qualify as a robot, a thing has to, first, interact with the outside world in some meaningful way, and, second, have enough on-board smarts to make its own decisions based on sensing conditions in its immediate environment.

Probably the first thing your robot kit should give you practice doing is building some kind of electromechanical thingy-ding. Most of the kits help you build what is classed as a mobile robot. That's something that moves about on its own. There are wheeled vehicles, tracked vehicles, walking vehicles, and even flying vehicles. Folks like mobile robots because they're fun to watch run around like little mechanical pets. It's the "whiz-bang" effect: anything that goes whiz-bang grabs the attention of predatory animals (like cats and people), and can hold it for a more-or-less extended time.

Of course, then they get bored and look for something else that does a different whiz-bang thing.

Another kind of kit helps you construct what's called a SCARA robot. SCARA stands for "selective compliance automated robot arm." These things are the robots you see on Discovery Channel programs making things in automated factories. They don't have quite the primal attraction of mobile robots, but they are generally a lot more important from a practical standpoint. It is a field, however, that's decades old, and much more maturely developed than the mobiles. There is, however, a &#$^-load of money to be made designing, building, and selling SCARA robots to people who want to mass-produce stuff.

The third category of robots has no defined shape. Its form quite literally follows its function. They do everything from making a perfect cup of coffee to winding armatures in electric-motor factories. They're fascinating to watch -- if you're an industrial engineer!

Forget androids, the humanoid robots of science fiction. They can't do anything an illegal alien can't be hired to do better and cheaper. I know, DARPA has this big robotics challenge that specifies humanoid form, but that's just another example of waste of funds by our misguided Federal government.

Okay, so you want to make sure your robot kit teaches you how to build something doing something complicated with electric motors. A radio-controlled toy car can do that. The other side -- which makes it a robot kit -- is programming via an on-board computer. This is an automated control system, which uses sensor inputs of some kind to make decisions about what to do based on its surroundings. The simplest is the old mechanical mouse running a maze. They can get pretty darn sophisticated, especially if you wander into the multi-hundreds-of-dollars sphere.

So, if you really want to get into robotics as a hobby, start with one of the simplest and least expensive kits. Then go on, and on, progressing to more and more expensive sets that get you deeper into the hows and whys of mechatronics.

Eventually, you could end up owning a company like United Drones of Naples, FL, who build all kinds of neat mobile robots for anybody who needs a neat mobile robot.

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