Rebuilding A Hero (the Robot, Not The Sandwich)

When [Scott Baker] found a Heathkit Hero Junior on eBay, he grabbed it. He had one as a kid, but it was long sold. The robot arrived with no electronics, so the first order of business is to give it some new modern brains including an ATMega328 and a Raspberry Pi. You can see the start of the project in the video below.

So far, you can see a nice teardown of the chassis and what’s left of the little robot’s drive system. This wasn’t the big Hero-1 that you probably remember, but it was still a pretty solid platform, especially for the time it was on the market.

[Scott] took over the project from the eBay seller. The original plan included some 3D printed parts to mount a web camera and some other sensors. If you’ve ever wanted to see someone characterize an unfamiliar stepper motor, this is your chance.

We don’t know what happened to the original electronics, but we do know that the original Hero Jr. had a 6808 CPU with a whopping 2 K of RAM and 32 K of ROM. You could upgrade to 24 K of RAM. The original also had an SC-01 speech synthesizer, along with sensors for light and sound. There was also a sonar sensor and two 6 V rechargeable batteries. For the advanced user, you could connect a serial port and use the BASIC cartridge.

By the end of the video, [Scott] could drive the thing around using a joystick. We are sure there’s more to come. Meanwhile, if you want to see the different models Heathkit made over eight years, check out the Old Robots Site. According to them, Heath sold 4,000 of these little monsters along with some 17,000 of the bigger siblings.

We’ve seen Hero upgrades before, of course. Heathkit is back, sort of, although we don’t think we’ll see the likes of the Hero family of robots again anytime soon.

25 thoughts on “Rebuilding A Hero (the Robot, Not The Sandwich)

  1. I want to see someone take one of the old Androbots and apply modern PID control to its drive so it won’t wobble fore and aft. The steeply pitched, conic section wheels with a heavy lead acid battery at the bottom of the bot give it passive stability. The engineers wanted the wheel angle even lower to further reduce wobble but were overruled because friction, wear, and power use would be higher.

  2. Really cool! I wished these little robots had made it into our daily life. The 70s/80s were so advanced and open minded in some way or another. Kinda makes me sad that things didn’t catch on. It’s a bit like the stereoscophy or 3D/Virtual Reality trend from the late 80s/mid-90s, that vanished.

    Nowadays things are so lame by comparison. Boring fashion, too much political correctness (gender speak etc), people take things too seriously/lack humor, can’t forgive, social cold, etc. I also miss quality (electronic) construction kits.

    The stuff that’s advertised to kids currently is just cheap and very basic and doesn’t make fun. Older kits were even usable for school work or real work to some degree (photography kits, chemistry kits, optics/microscope sets etc). I hope that things get better again in the upcoming decade. :)

    PS: The Hero was seen in an episode of Computer Chronicles! I can’t remember which one, though.

    1. absolutely!

      The 70’s 80’s were magical Just have. a flick through an electronics catalog from radio shack/ Tandy / dicksmith etc. from the time. – the future held so much promise.

      Unfortunately we have sold to the lowest entry level.

      1. I can’t say much about the 70s as I barely existed in them and likewise I don’t know much about being an adult in the 80s. But I can tell you that the 1980s were an absolutely horrible time to be a geeky kid with a wannabe electronics hobby.

        If you wanted to learn you had to go to the library. But the books in the library were printed in the 40s and 50s and wanted to teach you to build things from vacuum tubes purchased at the local drug store, galena picked out of the coal pile in the basement or any number of other things that may have been commonplace for your parents or grandparents but might as well have been stories of another planet by the 1980s.

        The closest thing to an open source community or a project blog like Hack a Day was a monthly magazine. Those were nice but nothing like what we enjoy today. Receiving one was exciting, but only like how receiving a small, mediocre meal is exciting to a person who is starving.

        Most projects were made to pay the author’s bills and the magazine publisher wasn’t doing that so everything required something that was hard to come by. Most articles had a parts list somewhere with fine print including the author’s postal address and a price (usually a high one) for a package that includes the special part and maybe a custom PCB.

        And of course as a kid buying that would mean not only saving up the money but also finding an adult to write a check. And convincing them that this was a good thing to let you invest your money in. But then, that challenge wasn’t just for the special part. It applied to almost all the parts!

        You were lucky living in Australia to have DickSmith. I guess in the US people on the west coast were lucky too for having Fry’s. What did the rest of us have? Well in the midwestern US that was pretty much just the Rat Shack. They were always overpriced and never had everything you need. In the end every project required something from a mailorder catalog. Every project required a call or a letter to Mouser or DigiKey, maybe Jameco if you were made of money. For the most part those first two were priced ok but the shipping was an arm and a leg even though it took almost as long then to order something from another state as it takes to receive something from another continent today.

        I guess I did miss one information source. The RatShack sold Forrest M Mimms books. They were pretty good and rumor had it the Rat Shack once carried all the parts to build the project in their books. At least at the Rat Shacks accessible to a kid in a small midwestern town this was a lie. They most definitely did not carry all the parts.

        Given the lack of availability of parts it might have been a bit nicer had some of those books or magazines explained tolerances and markings a bit better. Maybe I could have done more had I known how loose the requirements are for most capacitor values. I scoured all the libraries in the three towns I could reach in a day by bike looking for information about how to read the markings on non-electrolytic capacitors so I could try to reuse some from broken devices. It took the invention of the internet for me to actually find that basic piece of information!

        I used to dream of owning a good L/C meter so I could measure and re-use those parts. But they were never within my childhood budget. Today’s kid maker can get an AVR “transistor testor” that not only “magically” identifies most of their 2 and 3 terminal semiconductors but also measures capacitance. And a similarly built L/C meter takes a tiny bit more searching to find but is no more expensive. Not that they would need to since they can buy bags of new parts about as easily as I could have bought bags of Chiclets. Even an oscilloscope could be had now with a few weeks worth of allowance.

        So, anyway, with the community, the availability of parts, tools and information we have today… I think you are crazy to miss the old days. Maybe as an adult they were better but still there is so much more available today and it’s so much more affordable.

        Those days sucked.

        1. I found going to ham radio fests every couple months pretty much eliminated your list of problems.

          Also the numerous ham radio clubs I was in helped a lot.

          Of course ebay pretty much destroyed hamfests and cell phones pretty much eliminated fm repeaters which were the main reason the local clubs existed.

          I miss the days when vacuum tube test gear was like five cents per pound instead of being exotic retro restoration projects where something broken costs a kilobuck today because its antique. I had a top of the line reasonably calibrated 1960s era tektronix scope in the 80s for about $50. I guarantee I can’t buy a working, calibrated top of the line Agilent scope from this century for $50. Of course I don’t have the technology at home to push the limits of the 60s scope much less a 00s scope, LOL. Its not like 20 meters gets higher in frequency as the decades roll by LOL.

          1. That $50 in 1980s money is about $150 now, which can indeed get you a pretty capable old Tektronix analog scope or a shiny new USB unit.

            It can also get you about a dozen 8-channel 10 MHz logic analyzers, or six DC-to-daylight software defined receivers, or fifty 32-bit microcontroller boards, or a compute cluster that would beat the pants off the fastest supercomputer that 1980s money could buy (i.e. a trio of Pi 4s). The ability of that $150 to power an electronics hobby has not regressed, except for a few things that were anomalously cheap at the time due to catching a wave of obsolescence.

          2. Hamfests? Every couple of months? Well there was one Hamfest that I technically could have gone to had I known about it but that was once a year and still would have taken me 4 hours to get to by bike. Then again, the way those things peak and close down so early in the morning usually for me to get there on time would have meant leaving before the sun was even up which probably would not have gone over too well. Remember, I was writing from the persepective of a kid in the midwest.

            But to have 12 within reasonable range, even as an adult with a car? Where were you? It must have been a geek heaven. It certainly wasn’t like any real place I have ever been.

          3. “Of course I don’t have the technology at home to push the limits of the 60s scope much less a 00s scope, LOL. Its not like 20 meters gets higher in frequency”

            Ummm… does every project you build or work on seem to magically produce perfectly clean sine waves without much effort?

            A lot of problems manifest as harmonics or other higher frequency components of a signal. I don’t know just what the bandwidth of your 1960s scope is but I don’t expect a 60’s scope purchased in the 80s for a mere $50 is going to register very many multiples of 14MHz.

      2. I lived through those days as well, and do have fond memories. But, I must say, except for missing the old Heathkit, today things are much better for an electronics hobbyist. Almost any component you might want is just a click away from many different sellers, and the amount of information available on the web dwarfs what was available back then. The availability of inexpensive test equipment is awesome too, equipment that you could never have afforded, or that didn’t even exist back then, is available for low prices today. So while I do look back on those days fondly, and miss some aspects, I’m really happy with the state of the hobby today.

    2. The hero and as also on “Whiz Kids”, a brief show in the early eighties about a whiz kud and his friends, they solved crime problems. There was a crossover with “Simon & Simon”, maybe it was launched there.

      And the teenager had a Hero, along with other stuff that was too expensive for me.

  3. I wonder if anyone remembers a magazine series called, Real Robots, it was a bit too expensive and not very well planned, they actually ended up making changes to the design a few times throughout the series. There were two robots each robot ended up having sonar, one fixed sonar the other panning, LDRs, line following, bump sensors, even an optional flipper so it could play football. Various LEDs and a couple of 7 segment displays. Accessories like a fairly sophisticated remote control, an IR beacon ball and an IR goal. It seemed to be aimed at a young teenage audience, but there were a half dozen programming software CD-ROMs with mini games, including, state grids, graphical drag and drop flow logic, and a C like language, even basic code graphical simulation for some of the sensors.
    No doubt it would be a pretty reasonable platform for a modern brain transplant.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real_Robots

  4. Being too young to remember (heck I didn’t even exist way back then at all) all I have to go on is the surviving stuff and folks memories.. Which are notoriously good for wallpapering over the bad bits..

    That said all the kits and fun stuff I’ve seen thanks to the internet and catalogues does seem to make that era on the whole better for the science/maths enthusiasts than today. Better educational kits, books, etc..
    If you could have all that and still have the internet (well the good bits of it at least)…

    Seems like the Pi foundation is making good inroads on the computing side.. And there is a great deal to learn passively from the web.. But its not the same as having the build your own telescope kit with all the plans and parts at a good price (and getting if you built it right an actually useful telescope, something that is probably very entry level in spec but way better than a toy). Doing it yourself you learn so much more and then have a real interest in finding the limits of the cool thing you built.

  5. Oh man this just tugs on the memory strings. I am a bit jelly but enjoyed the walkthrough. Who knows, if covid isolation runs through this time next year perhaps I will have crafted something similar lol. Fun project and great memories thanks HaD!

  6. Heathkit is definitely not back.

    Heathkit was a company that promoted making. A company that wants to sell a painted-pipe antenna or a transistor TRF radio for $150 is not encouraging making, it’s leaching.

    And don’t get me wrong, the retro-heathkiteque styling is cool but it’s really more an attempt to profit off nostalgia than an actual continuation of Heathkit. Remember, back in Heathkit’s days those styles were cutting edge, sometimes even futuristic. Had Heathkit continued they would no doubt have re-styled their chassis several times by now. They would probably be selling things in curvy, super thin (shudder) cases and with transparent displays.

    Heathkit probably got some of their design look from StarTrek but if they were still around it would more likely be Discovery than TOS.

  7. I think there is a bit of seeing the past through nostalgia glasses going on here.
    There was a lot of optimism and imagination around tech that I can recall growing up in the 80s and early 90s.
    But the imagination far outstripped the accessible technology of the day.
    It seems we were on the peak of a robotics hype cycle, or perhaps on the “dunning kruger peak” shown in the graphic in this article (linked only for the picture): https://petapixel.com/2014/10/13/dunning-kruger-peak-photography/

    The technology available to the hobbyist now is better in every conceivable way. The power of even a basic Arduino would have made an 80’s robotics hobbyist jealous. Something like the ESP8266 and wireless communication would have been indistinguishable from magic. Then things like the Raspberry Pi which would have seemed incredible even to professionals of the time. The camera and openCV capabilities of even an earlier model of a Pi would have been hard to believe if shown to someone from that time. Showing some basic AI running on a Pi with a compute stick or a Jetson Nano would have just put things over the top, especially the DL based depth estimation capabilities those platforms should be able to run.

    We seem to be working on climbing out of the trough of disillusionment/the Jon Show trough now. Along the way, we lost a lot of our optimism about tech. Perhaps that’s due to things like the commercialization of the internet and over hyped technology like any Boston Dynamics robot or Tesla’s Autopilot.

    A little of the enthusiasm and optimism does still exists in some corners of the world. The x-robots Youtube channel comes immediately to mind. So it’s not all doom and gloom.

    Perhaps there is a niche were hobbyists take robots of the past like this, modernize them and create something closer to what we wanted a robot to be in the 80s with all the design aesthetic and optimism.

    1. For that matter, we have household robotics that actually perform useful, if menial, tasks. Roomba and its clones, the mopping, pool-cleaning, and lawn-mowing robots likewise. I can’t actually imagine a household robot taking over too many more tasks than that. Maybe a clothes-folding appliance or a solution to endless iteration of laundry. Complete kitchen utensil management? Window washing?

    2. In 1975 home computers weren’t far from science fiction, so the leap to robotics wasn’t a surprise. They were something “practical” to do with microprocessors. It was a way to go exploring, lots of articles in Byte about the things needed for robotics.

      But remember, there was a sort of interest before microprocessors arrived to add “smarts”.

      Some took it seriously, Carl Helmers after he left Byte started a magazine “Robotics Age”, which seemed to be for hobbyists, but seemed to evolve to more professional pursuits. The Hero seemed a mix of something for hobbyists, and the educational market. You could learn from pursuing robotics, without the endgame being a new product.

  8. NiCe Work. Glad to see another HERO rescued and used. Hero Jr was a pusher. That is the rear wheel drive pushed the machine with two front passive wheels. Most likely need to replace tires due to glazing and age. Diameter is significant. Stepper was 12VDC unipolar. Losing some torque there driving bipolar sequenced at 12V. None of HEROs where good on rugs. 12V through darlington sinks didnt exactly put the full 12V on original steering/drive FWIW. Tach? heee he he. um sure. Was IR reflective Black/white encoder (odometry) on drive wheel for distance Interrupt to 6808(6802). Im sure thats what he meant. Making fun is all. Steering Stepper was homed at startup intitialization. Thats it and all. Just like what was done here. Yay I guess.
    Practically no reason to keep old electronics unless Collector and have an ET-3400 thats already been modified on bench. razzz. Would have gone Mega2560 at least. Dump the 12v go 18v or better 24v and abuse a step stick. Check the grease in gear boxes too. That aint synthetic grease in there. Not even moly. The PMDC drive can handle 18V but the mount wont like a dump. PWM ramp. Gearbox fairly stout but still no reason to torture.
    Original PIR not missing anything there and it was far better than HERO1 AM Ultrasonic.
    Polariod 6500 Sonar was good. Power sucking but better than SRF. Sad his (its’) gone.

    80s werent that bad. We had radio modems and electronics shops. Sheeeesh. Stuff slow as frozen turd in shallow septic tube in winter compared to today But damn kiddies no clue how stupid easy they got it. There was bitching and moaning tho on 6808 Starting at HERO 1. Wasn’t a popular choice for Hero and 6809(E) would have been better but there were other greater choices. Not many choices on battery tech. SLA still not that bad of a choice costwise. More so at that time. 10hr recharge sucked but HEROs didnt have great charging circuitry either. Easily cut down to 6hrs.
    Bit of trivia that HERO1 original charging circuit liked to pop SLA by overcharging. Not so bad on lower deck but the battery in turret leaking made a mess.

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