The microcontrollers are cheap, the sensors are cheap, even the motors are cheap. So why are all the good wheeled robotics platforms so expensive? [Dimitris Platis] wanted to develop an affordable platform for experimenting with rovers, but the cheap plastic chassis he was using gave him all sorts of problems. So he did what any good hacker would do, and built a better version himself.
Interestingly, [Dimitris] decided to go with a chassis made from two PCB panels. The motors, mounted to small angled brackets, bolt directly to the lower PCB. These aren’t your standard $2 DC cans either. Each JGB37-520 gearhead motor comes complete with an encoder that allows your software to determine speed, distance, and direction. The upper PCB connects to the lower with several rows of pin headers, and plays host to whatever electronics payload you might be experimenting with at the time.
For the controller, [Dimitris] says the ESP32 is hard to beat by pretty much any metric you want to use. With integrated wireless and considerable computational power, there’s plenty of options for controlling your little rover either remotely or autonomously. But he also says that every effort has been made to ensure that you could switch out the microcontroller with something else should you want to spin up a customized version.
The whole idea reminds us a bit of quadcopters we’ve seen in the past, where the PCB wasn’t just being used structurally as a place to bolt the motors and hardware to, but actually contained functional traces and components that reduced how much wiring you needed to do. Naturally, this means that any damage to the chassis might cripple the electronics, but presumably, that’s what the big foam bumpers are there for.
[Dimitris] designed this project for educational use, so he assumes you’ll want to build 10 or 12 of these for your whole classroom. In those quantities, he says each bot will cost around $60. If you wanted to reduce the price a bit more, he says swapping the motors would be your best bet as they’re the single most expensive component of the design. That said, $60 for a quality open source rover platform sounds pretty fair to us.
Still too much? You could check out one of the 3D printable rover designs we’ve covered over the years. Or see if you can get lucky and pick up a cheap robot from the clearance rack and hack it.