Thursday, July 17, 2014

Introducing the ArrBot!

Over the next couple of weeks, you may see the eyes of EastBay RC turn from the skies we love and focus on cute little ground-based vehicles.  That's because I'm getting ready to teach a robotics class, and I'll be blogging all the notes, assignments, etc.  You may have noticed the past couple of big posts have been oriented in this direction.

What's an ArrBot?

ArrBot stands for "Autonomous something something Robot", or maybe "Advanced"?  Haven't quite figured that out yet, but we'll bravely solder (get it??) forward anyways.

The idea is a robot that is:
  • good for education
  • fun
  • attractive
  • cheap
  • has excellent software
I'm kind of excited about this.  Let me tell you a bit more about each of these goals.

Good For Education

I'm interested in STEM... not just for kids (although that's wonderful!) but also for adults.  There's a lot of smart, curious people who for some reason feel that "tech stuff" is hard or beyond their ken.  That's true to some extent (avoid self-taught DIY brain surgeons!), but there's a lot of stuff that's totally accessible.

I think that robotics is a good springboard into a couple of different areas... electronics, programming, and mechanical.  And as for RC planes, copters and drones that fly themselves... nothing more than beautiful, graceful, aerial robots.

So, I'd like this project to be accessible enough for beginners, but have enough substance so that it's a good springboard to more advanced topics.

And what's an educational tool without good supporting docs, etc?  I'll post everything here... let me know what you think!


Chris Anderson tells the story about how he originally got involved with drones... it started with a Lego Mindstorms robot that did some particular function (backing up after bumping into a wall, IIRC).  His kids (who knew what robots were capable of, having watched the Transformer series of documentaries) were impressed, but only for a very brief time, and wanted to know what else it could do.

And that's a problem with so many hobby robot projects.  They do the one thing, and then get set aside.

I think the key to solving this problem is by making them a fun toy as well.  How to do that?  The name of this blog should be a clue... remote control!  I've observed that anything that can be remote controlled will be played with.  Make it easy to fiddle with, and it's something that will be an interesting springboard for future projects as well.


Have you noticed a lot of "hobby robot" stuff is pretty ugly?  I don't mind that myself, but an appealing form factor can make the project a lot more accessible to people. Getting a handle on the wiring, etc, can make it more durable, too!

For our first class, we'll probably use the body (but different electronics) of the Sparkfun Red Rover robot.

We're fortunate in having expert robot designer Alonso Martinez (of Gertie fame!) helping out with some new designs as well.


Lots of robotics projects can be a bit pricy.  More details on this later, but I think that with smart purchasing an entire system (including remote controller) can be put together for under $50.  If you already have a bluetooth phone, even cheaper since you can use that for your remote.

Operating concept: "Cheaper than a Game Cartridge!"

Excellent Software

This is the area where I think the ArrBot can make a real difference in the hobby robot area.  There are lots of nifty robot designs, but they seem to suffer from the

The initial ArrBot software should be easily adaptable to other "differential drive" (i.e. two-wheeled or two-tracked) robot projects. I would love to see other robot projects be able drop in the ArrBot software and use it as a springboard for their own work.

I'm working with some of the best computer people on the software.  More later, but I think the ArrBoteers are going to do a pretty nifty job on this.

We've got a roadmap for adding various sensors -- accelerometers, gyros, etc. -- that should make for great functionality and provide a springboard for learning more about the electronics and software side.

Details later, but as an example imagine a self-calibrating robot.  Add servos, motors, etc, turn it on, and  it will  move around and tune itself, finding center points, maximum speed, etc.  It will be pretty neat, I think.

Follow Along!

I'll be blogging our progress.  Next week our first class will start, so posting will be pretty heavily skewed in that direction.

Let me know what you think!

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