Whether you’re a beginner or you’ve dabbled in robotics before, using a guide and learning more than you absorb from kits is a big step toward doing some cool projects. It’s not an easy hobby or career; well, there are easy and hard projects, so you could choose a smooth road or a hard road. The easy side of robotics is suitable for a leisurely hobby or grabbing some quality time with your kids.
You’ll need to consider your budget before you begin taking on projects as well. Simple projects tend to run cheaper than more complex and advanced robotics. Study your budget and figure out how much you can comfortably spend on robotics before you begin anything. You’ll need several things before you start such as:
Those are just the essential items you may need to get started on most robotics kits you find online. Some may come with a set of tools designed to fit the necessary screws and bolts as well. If you move on to advanced robotics, you’ll need software to talk to your robot and a lot of electronics related tools like soldering irons and plenty of reference books or manuals.
That said, we’re not trying to paint a grim picture of robotics at all. In fact, we’re hoping to encourage you to get started and work your way toward advanced robotics. You need to understand it won't always be easy, and the instructions may not be much more than a schematic. Couple that with the often-expensive tools and parts, and you realize robotics is not your average hobby.
It is one of the most rewarding hobbies you’ll find, and it may turn into a career for some industrious hobbyists. Robots build cars and planes while some of them are making their way into the fast food business. Still, those robots are far less advanced when you compare them to robots used in healthcare for surgery or monitoring patients. So, it may be an enjoyable hobby to start your kids on for the future.
We’ve put together this guide to help you understand the basics plus you’ll find sections on books and kits you may want to buy to get you started. There’s plenty of information online and tons of tutorials to help you as well. Once robotics gets in your system, it's hard to quit, and you'll want plenty of exciting and challenging projects to build.
General Background on Robots
Before you begin, you need to understand that robots are much more than automated machines that build cars or small toys for kids to play with because you can create some pretty advanced robots at home. If you want to make a robot to play fetch with your dog, go for it but remember you can also build one to load and unload the dishwasher. Don’t limit yourself.
If you want to work in the field of robotics, start by getting a degree in mechanical, electrical, or computer engineering. Mechanical engineers help develop the structure or body of a robot along with the moving parts. Electrical engineers work on controlling the robot and giving them the ability to sense things or even see them. Computer engineers develop software that helps the robot think.
You can get a degree in robotics that puts you on a learning track devoted to it. However, you’re better off getting a degree in one of the three fields we mentioned above and focusing on a specific aspect of robotics. Otherwise, you may end up with a little knowledge about each branch of robotics and still require more education to get a good job. That’s if you are looking at robotics as a career.
Even if you're not thinking about a career in robotics, all three of those fields make for exciting and rewarding profession. You can also find work rather easily using any of those three degrees. The world is filling up with automation from manufacturing to fast food restaurants. If you get bored with a degree like mechanical engineering, it just means you need to build more medieval siege gear in your yard.
For the remainder of this article, you can assume any advice we give you can get applied to robotics enthusiasts or those focused on a career in robotics. That brings us to your first big decision beyond your budget or educational needs which is choosing a class of robotics to focus on or study. We can break robotics down into three types; simple, midlevel, and complex.
Simple robotics are things like your washing machine or dryer. They do a simple job automatically. Midlevel robots might include more advanced devices that perform complex tasks like an automated welder on an assembly line. It does one complex job and nothing else. Complex robots are the most fun because they can do almost anything. They use sophisticated hardware and software like a computer.
Different Kinds of Robotics
Hollywood has tainted our idea of what robotics truly is and how robotic equipment works. We don’t have evil robots, terminators, or three laws to govern how robotics perform or interact with humans. What we do have are simple and more complex machines that humans use to make their daily lives or job easier.
An excellent example of a very complicated robot might be the ones NASA uses to explore other planets or the MQ-9 Reaper the Air Force uses. Both of these complex machines are capable of operating on their own and for extended periods. They have built-in, advanced computer hardware and software that an engineer somewhere helped design and build.
NASA also uses simple, we use that term very loosely, robotics like the arm on the Space Shuttle that astronauts use to grab or unload things in space. It was used heavily in deploying many of the modern satellites that orbit Earth. While robotic arms like this one may seem complicated because NASA uses it, the reality is that the device is a simple machine with some advanced technology running it.
Industrial robots fall into the mid level category because they can perform multiple tasks if you change their programming or add a new tool to their arsenal. The arm on the Space Shuttle is more like an industrial robot than an exploration rover because it mostly grabs, holds, and moves things. Simple and midlevel robots aren't new inventions, and many of them have been around for decades.
Complex robotics includes a variety of things like the Mars rover and some of today’s surgical robots. These robots can handle hundreds of tasks, and their programming is easy to adjust or change if you know what you’re doing. Technically, driverless cars and fully automated homes or factories fall into the complex robotics category as well.
There’s a robot for nearly every task if you can afford it or build it. Robots milk cows and harvest crops. We have robots that monitor disaster areas and scan for survivors and check for possible hazards that may endanger rescue workers. The car and food industries were among the first to adopt robotics as a necessary business tool, but robotics of all types have moved into every part of our lives.
Getting Started with Robotics
Some of the steps on the list below may not apply to everyone. Most of them are necessary steps to getting started which is why we included them in our robotics beginner’s guide. However, if you’re researching robotics as a serious or leisurely hobby, getting a formal education aimed at robotics may be a bit much. The steps include:
Like we mentioned above, several degree tracks can lead to a career in robotics like computer, mechanical, or electrical engineering. Check with your local trade schools and colleges to find out what they offer or get some advice from them. Robotics, except for the computer engineering aspect, is a very hands-on field.
Electronics is a critical element of robotics. Without circuits and a power source, your robot won't do very much. It may look good, but it's probably a useless robot. We suppose you could build a steam-powered robot, but we can’t see a practical use for it unless you need your shirts ironed. Learn as much as possible about electronics but start with the absolute basics.
If you don’t know how to write code, you’ll need to rely on other people to make your robot do things. Robotics that require human guidance such as robotic arms or washing machines don’t need complex computerized hardware, but they aren’t much fun. Like electronics, learn how to write code but start with the basics, or you'll lose part of your sanity.
Mechanical engineering isn’t a necessity for robotics enthusiasts since you may use prefabs or kits a lot. If you plan on pursuing a career in robotics, mechanical engineering is an excellent place to begin. Awesome electronics and computer code are useless without a body or device control. Mechanical engineers are arguably the backbone of many robotics projects.
Schedule time to work on your projects. If you’re learning, any lengthy lapse in time may erase some of the things you learned about robotics. The best way to learn anything is to start doing it and practice. If you work on your education and projects as often as possible, you’ll get a lot more done and learn faster. Don’t forget to develop a robotics budget to pay for everything.
Don’t try to build an industrial welder or anything you saw in an episode of Star Trek until you’ve mastered the basics. We know it’s hard to work on small projects that don’t have a lot of excitement to them, but you’ll thank us later if you start small and work your way up to the hard stuff. Start with simple movement robotics and minor automation before you tackle a big job.
This guide will get you started, but this is the easy part. You have to choose where you want to start and what kind of robotics you plan to focus on for your garage or career. The sheer number of projects you can start working on as a beginner is overwhelming and too numerous for us to list them all here. You may want to build your own home automation system or make a robot to mow the grass.
Once you choose a direction, come back to our beginner’s guide to robotics because these steps work with any type of robotics. You may want to look into getting a few prefab kits that you can put together and tinker with until you learn a bit more about robotics. They will give you a project to get started us plus teach you some of the basics. You still have to choose a type or level of robotics to pursue.
The Stages of Building Robotics
Aside from the knowledge and skills necessary to build robotics, you need to follow a path from idea to completion. It all begins with an idea like deciding you want to make a robot to clean out your gutters. To get the robot from an idea to a working prototype you need a plan. We’ve created a blueprint to help you get started.
If you’re a beginner, you’ll need to pick up some skills and knowledge along the way to complete each stage of your plan. You should understand the types of robotics at this point in the article along with knowing the kind of education you should focus on if this is a career option for you. So, let’s create a plan to make it all happen and get your idea into a physical form.
Let's build on our idea of creating robotics capable of cleaning the gutters on the house. This could be a project for your home or an idea you plan to market to other homeowners. What you do with the final product doesn’t matter. Our goal here is developing a plan and working out all the details before we start building.
The first step is figuring out how the robot moves. Not all robots need to move, but our gutter cleaning one needs to be mobile. If it needs to climb the wall and get on the roof, you need to figure out how it might accomplish this task. However, it may not need to climb the wall if it has an arm that extends above the gutter to grab debris and spray some water in the gutter to flush it out.
Let’s build this robot using triangular tracks in case it flips over and to give it more traction, so it won't slide off the roof. You can make a small platform or box in an obscure area on the roof for the robot to live in while it’s not working. We’ve eliminated the need to climb, and the robot has a home now where it can recharge and hide from the rain. You could give it legs like a spider if you want it to climb.
The next stage in development is figuring out what makes the robot move along the rooftop. For this stage we need motors. The motors we use must be powerful enough to make each part of the robot work effectively from moving the robot to grabbing the debris in the gutter. You’ll need to understand operating voltage and torque for this stage. Check the books listed below for plenty of advice.
It's crucial to understand motors and servos if you want your robot to work well. The material you use and the job the robot must do determine the type or motors and servos you need. We’ll need a motor with a lot of torque to move the robot. W can order a prefabricated arm to mount on it for grabbing the debris, but we also need a motor to handle pumping water.
We can avoid adding a massive water tank to this robot by building a simple irrigation system to hide in the gutters. Once our gutter clearing robot gets finished, it will tell the robot that controls the irrigation to turn it on for a few minutes. However, it could use Wi-Fi to turn the water on and off itself at various stages during the cleaning process.
We know how the robot moves and what we need to make this happen, but how do we power it all? We need batteries that can handle getting wet and hold their charge for a long time. The electronics, motors, and material the robot gets made from determine its weight and play a critical role in helping us figure out which batteries to use. The hard part is figuring out where to put the batteries.
Now that the easy part is worked out, our gutter cleaning robot needs sensors. It needs proximity sensors, so it doesn't run off the edge of the roof and to keep it on track beside the gutter. It also needs sensors to help it find the debris it needs to remove from the gutters which also help it know when the gutter it clean. This part is advanced and may fall outside the scope of our beginner’s article.
Do we need video? You always need video. However, it serves a practical purpose for this scenario because we need to check on the progress and make sure the robot is doing an excellent job without climbing on the roof. It’s also possible to get cameras that double as sensors to help the robot move around without getting into trouble or falling off the roof.
That said, using a computer and cameras to give robotics eyes is very complex and not something a beginner should tackle. Luckily, we can probably order a sensor system for our gutter cleaner that includes proximity sensors and video. We’ll need a computer on the robot to make all of this work and give us some control from the ground if we want to make our robot double as an inspection tool.
Building complex computers or circuitry is not a task for beginners. The best option for our gutter cleaning robot is using a device like the Raspberry Pi. This is a fully functioning computer motherboard with everything we need to get started plus it’s small. However, we need to adapt our design to accommodate it because it needs protection from the elements.
Now we have a plan for building a simple robot with some advanced features that still fall into the beginner category. However, we cheated a little because we need someone to write the computer code that makes it all work. The idea is solid, and you could pull this off without any computer aid at all. You just need to build a robot that moves along a track with an arm that makes timed scoops.
Honestly, this is a good idea, and you could build this type of robotics a hundred different ways. That’s probably the most exciting part of robotics; you can do it a hundred different ways and still accomplish the goal. For example, we could consider solar power for recharging the batteries as well which adds to our hundred different ways. You need a plan to make it all work and the knowledge to build the robot.
If you’re skipping the formal education, check out the books we listed below to get more insight into robotics and electronics. The kits you can order are great, and a lot of fun plus many of them are useful, but they are limited. So, you need to start studying and learning in order to design and build robotics. Writing computer code and understanding electronics are probably the hardest parts.
Do I Need to Know All of This?
If you plan to work in robotics, it’s unlikely you’ll need all the skills necessary to build a highly functional robot. Each stage of development usually has its own team. If you’re a mechanical engineer, your job revolves around creating a body for the robot. Other people get to design the software and build the electrical components. You'll all work together to bring the project to fruition.
As an enthusiast, you will probably have to build each component yourself. You can order many parts like motors and such, but you need to build the body and create the software. That said, some kits come with software you can use, but the actions of your robot will still end up confined to the kit manufacturer’s ideas.
To truly experience robotics and build something for your wants or needs, you need to develop your own robotics from the body to the software. Again, motors and servos along with other complex parts are available, and you only need to tell them what to do through electronics or software. You must decide how complex and challenging to make your projects and start there.
You can also order specialized robots in various stages of prefabrication to help you get a working prototype ready a little faster. Advanced robotics are expensive but you can order almost anything from a bulldozer to Wi-Fi enabled micro-robotics. You need to create the software that tells the robot what to do and get that part working.
If you want to create a robotic prototype aimed at mowing the grass, you can order a prebuilt body and simply adapt it. You can order a chassis that’s just the drivetrain and build on top of it or under it. You can order the same robotics used in law enforcement to disarm bombs and create your own software to make a better bomb disposal robot or make it fetch drinks from the refrigerator.
The point is that the options only get limited by your imagination and skills. Build something simple as a hobby or develop complex robotics to patrol your property and watch for intruders. If you have high fences around your property, build robotics that fly to keep an eye on the outside. The exciting part is that you can do all of this with a small machine shop and a healthy budget.
Books to Get You Started
The books in this section cover a wide range of topics, but they all pertain to robotics. Each book listed here will help you learn the basics of some aspect of robotics. That said, a few of the books are about some of our favorite project starters like Arduino. Why create your own circuits or computers when you can get a multitasking device like an Arduino?
You can get this book in paperback on Amazon for $15.69 or buy it for your Kindle reader. It will help you learn about the Arduino prototyping platform for electronics and get you started on some cool projects. You can get a basic Arduino kit for less than $50 and start building the day it arrives. It’s an excellent way to learn about electronics and servos.
You can order this book on Amazon for $20.18 in paperback or $14.99 for your Kindle. If you haven’t heard about Lego Mindstorms, they’re one of the best places for a beginner to start learning about robotics. It's a kit, and much of it gets preprogrammed, but you can build some pretty cool things, and you'll learn which is the most important thing they offer.
You can get this book on Amazon for $23.79 in paperback or $15.39 for your Kindle. It’s an excellent reference tool for beginners and pros. You’ll learn about servos and steppers along with several other aspects of electronics. This book also covers some of the ways you can use motors with Arduino and Raspberry Pi devices.
Practical Electronics for Inventors
You can get this book on Amazon for $13.60 in paperback or $24.10 for your Kindle. This book is all you need to get started learning about electronics from the ground up. It covers nearly everything from how electricity gets made to building your own circuit boards from scratch. If you don’t buy any of the other books on electronics, get this book to get you started learning the basics.
You can get this book on Amazon for $15.29 in paperback or get it for $5.58 on your Kindle. This book is a goldmine of information on everything including shop safety, welding, electronics, and metalworking. You’ll even find information on 3D printing along with plenty of information on CNC milling to get you started making your own robotics parts and framework.
You can get this book on Amazon for $35.92 in paperback or $24.49 for your Kindle reader. This is the perfect compliment to any of the other books on our list. The author is a true robotics enthusiast that loves building robots and sharing the knowledge they learned from years of trial and error. If you ask us, this is a necessary tool for any beginner trying to get into robotics.
If your budget won’t support getting all the books on this list, start at the bottom and work your way up. The bottom three books are probably the best options for beginners. They’ll give you a good foundation to build on while remaining excellent references for almost any project you decide to tackle. As a bonus, you’ll find plenty of ideas to build on while you’re reading them.
Some Final Notes
IMAGE BY: flickr
You have all the information you need to develop a plan for learning more about robotics and moving past the beginner stage and into more complex projects. Trust us, once you build your first robot and get it working correctly, the addiction will set in, and you’ll want to experiment and push the limits of your robots and your abilities.