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How Robots Work

By: Tom Harris & Chris Pollette  | 

Home-made 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 may cobble together their creations using whatever is on hand, such as old toys, VCRs and other random leftover gadgets, but the maker movement has made it easy to find components, share ideas and educate others about DIY electronics.

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Robots are only part of the maker movement, but many DIY tools can be used for a wide range of applications. Inexpensive single-board computers are powerful enough for more elaborate projects. Sites like Instructables and Thingiverse let makers share plans with one another. There are makerspaces, hackerspaces and fablabs inside schools, universities, libraries and even in communities for people to borrow tools and learn from one another as they put together their own creations. Many have 3-D printers available to print robot parts to your custom specifications.

Home-made 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." Some may not consider BattleBots to be "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 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 identifies its own team members, its opponent's members, the ball and the goal based on their color. The computer uses this information to decide how to direct its team.

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