Remember When Scratch-Built Robots Were Hard?

Even simple robots used to require quite a bit of effort to pull together. This example shows how far we’ve come with the tools and techniques that make things move and interact. It’s a 3D printed rover controlled by the touchscreen on your phone. This achieves the most basic building block of wheeled robotics, and the process is easy on you and your pocketbook.

We just can’t stop loving the projects [Greg Zumwalt], aka[gzumwalt], is turning out. We just saw his air-powered airplane engine and now this little rover perks our ears up. The design uses the familiar trick of two powered wheels with a ball bearing to avoid problems with differential turning. But the simplicity is all in the implementation.

This bot is 3D printed using eight very simple pieces: four gears, two axles, a cap and a single tray to mount everything. The cap captures the ball bearing which pokes out a hole in the bottom of the tray to form an omnidirectional wheel. Two 9G servos modified for continuous rotation. The mating teeth of the gears are found on the wheel sections which have grooves for neoprene O-rings to provide traction. The entire thing is driven by an ESP8266 in the form of an Adafruit Feather Huzzah. This is programmed using the Arduino IDE and your phone can connect directly or through a WiFi router.

We’re not crazy, right? Robots didn’t used to be this easy to pull together? This goes for the power of 3D printing versus traditional basement fabrication methods, but in the availability of powerful yet inexpensive embedded systems and the available tools and libraries to program them. Kudos to you [Greg] for showing us how great the currently available building blocks are in the hands of anyone who wants to channel their engineering creativity. He certainly has… this chassis ultimately powers Santa’s sleigh.

Need a bigger printing challenge? Here’s a 3D printed rover that goes all-in with the suspension system.

[via Adafruit]

10 thoughts on “Remember When Scratch-Built Robots Were Hard?

  1. I suppose the takeaway from this is that they’re no longer scratch built, given all the available low-cost prebuilt modules nowadays. My first line following robot that I designed at college 18 years ago used a 556 dual timer to control two servos, a reflective optoswitch and a little signal conditioning in between, all mounted in a small upside-down tupperware container with a few holes drilled into it.
    But then where do you draw the line at “scratch built”. The 556 dual timer and the servo motors and opamps I used all have a bunch of clever electronics inside them, so they are effectively circuit modules themselves.
    Now there are modules with WiFi and Bluetooth and all manner of plug and play firmware libraries and code snippets.
    Almost all that we do is built on the shoulders of giants, constantly reducing the difficulty of getting involved in and sparking interest in our once niche fields. Which is awesome.

    1. “Almost all that we do is built on the shoulders of giants, constantly reducing the difficulty of getting involved in and sparking interest in our once niche fields. Which is awesome.”

      Future children are going to have so much fun with Johnny’s Build-your-own ED-209 and Lifeform creation kit for beginners.

        1. There will always be enough water for drinking. If ISS crews can drink their own recycled pee, humanity as whole can do something similar as well. Desalination of sea water is expensive because it is not seen as major problem (to anyone actually caring about expenses) yet, but once it becomes problem to somebody who can and want to do something about its price, we’ll see it taken care of.

  2. I remember when I first got into robotics. the local book store clerk laughed when I asked. I then found 1 book at the local library. It involved building a bump switch bot named “buster” from 2 12v motorcycle batteries, a junk yard power window motor, and needing to find a tig welder to secure the shelving stock frame. The point was once you got that up and running you could add more to the platform, but of course there was no guidance how.

    So I replaced the shelf stock with plywood, the motorcycle batteries and window motor with 2 broken cordless drills from a junk shop, and built my first bot. If I recall I stumbled into building an H-bridge before knowing what an H-bridge was. I think I still have that bot in my shop.

    Then on a whim I signed up for Amazon in 1995 – and searched there. And yes I found, for a few hundred dollars – MIT Robotics text books on sensors et al.

    Then on my 21st Birthday – I got a bottle of scotch, and Gordon McComb’s first edition “Robot Builder’s Bonanza”. I don’t recall how but this lead to Mark Tilden and BEAM robotics, and junk bots, and scrapping and my own PCBs – which was a huge pain back in the day (Inkjet printer, getting a clean transfer, reviewing the traces with a monocle and sharpie, etching chemicals in old tupperware) Getting a beta copy of Eagle when it came out.

    Damn – I’m old. Thanks for the post.

  3. It’s not really much easier, just a different set of skills.

    A decade or two ago, you would have assembled the frame from cardboard, Meccano, Lego, pieces of wood / plywood, whatever you had available. Required skills: figuring out the shape, cutting, sawing, gluing. Nowadays with 3D printer you need to know how to use a 3D design program, a slicer, and quite a bit about what kind of parts can be printed.

    The control side would have been either a premade RC receiver, some BASIC Stamp board, or just a bunch of switches or analog electronics. Required skills: following instructions (which used to be much better than nowadays!), upgrading it as your electronics knowledge grows. Nowadays you have 100s of platforms to choose from, and many of those have quite poor software support. After that you need to set up the toolchain, which even with Arduino can be a bit of a hassle for some platforms, ESP8266 included.

    Add to that debugging why stuff just doesn’t work with your phone, why WLAN won’t connect etc, I doubt it is really that much easier to get a basic robot going. Of course nowadays you can go way beyond basic, up to realtime computer vision and more, but it’s only few very skilled people who get that far.

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