Homebrew Robots

In the last couple of sections, we looked at the most prominent fields in the world of robots -- industry robotics and research robotics. Professionals in these fields have made most of the major advancements in robotics over the years, but they aren't the only ones making robots. For decades, a small but passionate band of hobbyists has been creating robots in garages and basements all over the world.

Homebrew robotics is a rapidly expanding subculture with a sizable Web presence. Amateur roboticists cobble together their creations using commercial robot kits, mail order components, toys and even old VCRs.

Homebrew robots are as varied as professional robots. Some weekend roboticists tinker with elaborate walking machines, some design their own service bots and others create competitive robots. The most familiar competitive robots are remote control fighters like you might see on "BattleBots." These machines aren't considered "true robots" because they don't have reprogrammable computer brains. They're basically souped-up remote control cars.

More advanced competitive robots are controlled by computer. Soccer robots, for example, play miniaturized soccer with no human input at all. A standard soccer bot team includes several individual robots that communicate with a central computer. The computer "sees" the entire soccer field with a video camera and picks out its own team members, the opponent's members, the ball and the goal based on their color. The computer processes this information at every second and decides how to direct its own team.

Check out the official RoboCup Web site for more information on Soccer robots, and Google > Computers > Robotics > Competitions for information on other robot competitions. Google > Computers > Robotics > Building will give you more information on building your own robots.

Adaptable and Universal

The personal computer revolution has been marked by extraordinary adaptability. Standardized hardware and programming languages let computer engineers and amateur programmers mold computers to their own particular purposes. Computer components are sort of like art supplies -- they have an infinite number of uses.

Most robots to date have been more like kitchen appliances. Roboticists build them from the ground up for a fairly specific purpose. They don't adapt well to radically new applications.

This situation may be changing. A company called Evolution Robotics is pioneering the world of adaptable robotics hardware and software. The company hopes to carve out a niche for itself with easy-to-use "robot developer kits."

The kits come with an open software platform tailored to a range of common robotic functions. For example, roboticists can easily give their creations the ability to follow a target, listen to voice commands and maneuver around obstacles. None of these capabilities are revolutionary from a technology standpoint, but it's unusual that you would find them in one simple package.

The kits also come with common robotics hardware that connects easily with the software. The standard kit comes with infrared sensors, motors, a microphone and a video camera. Roboticists put all these pieces together with a souped-up erector set -- a collection of aluminum body pieces and sturdy wheels.

These kits aren't your run-of-the-mill construction sets, of course. At upwards of $700, they're not cheap toys. But they are a big step toward a new sort of robotics. In the near future, creating a new robot to clean your house or take care of your pets while you're away might be as simple as writing a BASIC program to balance your checkbook.