Getting Started in Robotics
The Robotics Society often gets e-mail from kids and parents requesting
information on how to get started in Robotics. Betsy Schmidt sent us the
following question about her son's interest::
Another request regarding robotics career education is provided by budding student roboticist Joshua Mauer:
These and many other questions prompted me to write the following summary of resources that I hope will help you, your children, or children you teach get a good start learning about robotics.
|SFRSA member & Past President's Roger Gilbertson runs "The Robot Store", whose catalog & website offer a comprehensive collection of robot kits from beginner through advanced. You can order a catalog from the website or peruse it online. The site contains a chart titled "Choosing Robots for Your Experimenters" that organizes systems by skill areas (hardware, electronics, logic) & levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced). An example of an "all-beginner-at-all-skill-levels" kit is the "Wall Hugging Mouse". This "mouse" is a popular "maze runner" robot, and is a good starting point that lets you "test the waters" and stimulate your interest by building a maze-running robot.|
If you prefer something more like a "Gilbert Chemistry Set" approach with which you can progressively learn about the various areas of robotics & build several kinds of robots, then
Lego Mindstorms, originally developed at
MIT, is most popular & has a number of systems. On the LEGO
Mindstorms page you can click on the "Products" icon, which takes you to their offerings, as well as their Product Selector web pages, which
list their main lines of robot systems, by age group (9+ & 12+).
The systems start with simple constructions, then proceed to higher orders of complexity & requirements, for example, beginning robot systems are self contained whereas the more advanced require use of a PC CD-ROM player to read Building Instructions &/or a PC for additional programming. One popular product line is "Star Wars" - kits for making machines like R2D2 & AT-AT. These are called "Droid Developer Kit" * & "Dark Side Developer Kit" and are developed for children ages 9+ through 12+.
The Lego website also offers a community where members can exchange robot programs, obtain tech support, join forums & get information on participation in First Lego League Robot Competition events.
The LEGO Machines and Mechanisms series is wonderful for teaching mechanical concepts such as gears, levers, wheels, axles, and pulleys . Some of these products are suitable for children as young as five years old. Others challenge children well into their teens. The toys are from LEGO Dacta, the educational division of the LEGO Company. They design learning concepts that encourage children to use their creativity and natural curiosity through minds-on and hands-on experience. LEGO Dacta Learning Concepts are available solely through specialized dealers.
|SFRSA member & Robot SUMO (& also Battlebot's) Champion Carlo Bertoccini runs a Robot Bookstore website called "Robotbooks.com", a descriptive excerpt from which notes "Our Job is to sort through the many robotics books available today, and select, review, recommend, and sell, just those few that we feel are the very best". The site also offers a Newsletter as well as extensive "Robot News" & "Links" sections.|
|Robot Classes & Workshops|
SFRSA President David Calkins teaches Sumo robot
construction techniques at his annual robot building class at the
Exploratorium, in the classroom area. The classes typically occur in
the Nov. - Dec. timeframe, every Sunday from 1pm - 4pm, for 4 weeks.
For specific schedule info, e-mail
SFRSA President David Calkins.
SFRSA member & Lawrence Berkeley Lab Engineer Zach Radding is building an on-going Robot Workshop, now under construction & slated for opening late 2001 in Berkeley. Until then Zach has already started an East Bay Builders Group & created a website called "Zach's Cool Stuff". A descriptive excerpt from the web page reads "Where High school and college-aged members expand their knowledge of electronics, robotics, mechanics and computers through hands-on projects". Zach is currently offering regular robotics-oriented project meetings weekly in the East Bay, on Monday nights 7pm at Mills College.
Many of the entrants & winners in the Annual SFRSA Robot Games Sumo Competitions built their machines in the robot-building classes taught by David & Zach.
For a comprehensive list of K-12 through University Robotics curricula, see the NASA Robotics Education Project (REP) section below, particularly the Students and Educators links and news stories of their High Tech collaborations with Schools & Businesses.
|Annual SFRSA Robot Games|
Every year around mid-September SFRSA
hosts the Robot Games. Events typically include
Line Slalom, Rope Climb, Robot Sumo Wrestling, LEGO Mindstorms Challenge, Hexapod Challenge, B.E.A.M. Robot Competition, Maze Challenge, Obstacle Course/Terrain Challenge, AIBO Races & Demonstrations & Open Events.
High Schools and Colleges are strongly encouraged to contact us and build a robot for the competition. Sumo bots, Mindstorm bots, and Aibo performers can all be designed and built within a week or two. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information! Help is available for students and teachers who want to build robots for competitions.
Games held at the San Francisco Exploratorium were Webcast thanks to the Exploratorium's wonderful video crew!
|ROBOT COMMUNITY RESOURCES|
|Pitsco Lego Dacta Catalog|
This catalog offers, for kids, a number of what
might be considered pre-robotic technologies prepatory/primer training
systems (simple machines, wheels & axles, gears...), LEGO Mindstorms
design software (Autodesk "Lego CAD"), additional sensors,
replacement parts & alternative programming environments ("ROBOLAB")
& a "Mars package" developed in conjunction with NASA/The
Planetary Society (ROBOLAB was developed from "LabVIEW", used by
NASA on the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover mission).
Though you do not need these systems before working with Mindstorms (the concepts are introduced as needed on-the-fly in Mindstorms projects), they can round out education in these areas & thus provide more design ideas. Some of the later links below in this section are more "future informational", a vision of where things are headed, i.e. Mars. You can order the "Pitsco Dacta catalog", as well as a newsletter, from their website.
|NASA Robotics Education Project (REP)|
offers a strong focus on student robotics activities. An excerpt from
their website reads "To inspire students...REP...is dedicated to
encouraging people to become involved in science and engineering,
particularly robotics. NASA will need many people with skills in these
areas in the next decades to continue space exploration...REP supports a
variety of robotics programs...Curriculum for K-12...(&)...Robotics
competitions such as Botball (KIPR) and FIRST". The REP
Students and Educators links list a collection of robotic programs.
NASA also offers JPL Web Interface For Telescience (WITS), software developed to provide Internet-based control of planetary lander & rover missions. WITS was used for the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover, Mars Polar Lander Robotic Arm & Camera & will be used for the FIDO Rover 2003 & beyond Mars missions. Included is a public version of WITS, developed for projected public/student participation in future planetary missions, that you can download and use on your own computer to send real WITS commands to Virtual NASA Robot Rovers & Arms.
Other interesting software sites are:
NASA Ames, at Mountain View/Moffett Field, CA, NASA's main robotics research arm, is also engaged in several High Tech collaborations with Schools & Businesses, as recently reported in the San Francisco Chronicle Newspaper. These collaborations are part of an initiative to create NASA Research Park, aiming to be the leading world engineering R&D center, whose members already include Stanford, UC & Carnegie Mellon, which institutions have already begun to offer courses such as Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Autonomy High School summer session.
"New site to search for life in space - Silicon Valley spot dedicated for Carl Sagan
|UC Berkeley Poly-Pedal Lab|
|Headed by Professor Robert Full, the lab studies animal motion and its application to 3-D model animation and robotics. Professor Full's community service activities have included a talk at SFRSA and a class with "Concord, CA...Oak Grove Middle School students...(to)...study animal locomotion and design biomorphic explorer robots to search the solar system".|
|Special Interest Group (AIBO SIG)|
SFRSA "Mediameister" & amateur
roboticist Cliff Thompson set up the San Francisco AIBO club to focus on the Sony
Entertainment Robot America (ERA) Artificial Intelligence Robot (AIBO)
system. This system runs APERIOS (Embedded Real-time Robot Operating System),
offers a wireless land area network (LAN) system for real time wireless operation/communication/software download
& a modular hardware platform ranging from animal(s) to a recently introduced
humanoid prototype, the SDR-3X.
Software titles for AIBO include Fun Pack (picture taking), Hello AIBO (mature AIBO), Party Mascot (game play), Master Studio (original motion & sound scripts), Navigator (remote operation, navigation, conversation, viewing) & Messenger (voice command, email/appointment notice/web keyword-watch news fetch, retrieve & voice synthesis read). Boston Dynamics (BDI), run by former Founder/Director of the MIT Leg Lab Marc Raibert, has created an AIBO Humanoid Simulator, using custom BDI software called Digital Biomechanics Laboratory (DBL), which resembles Mechanical Dynamics "ADAMS" (Mechanical Dynamics Mechanical Design Simulation) / Virtual Prototyping software.
The first meeting of the San Francisco AIBO club took place at the San Francisco Sony METREON, where Sony hosted the "AIBO 2nd Anniv." party on June 16, 2001. The event was preceded by a talk from ERA Head, Sony VP Takeshi Yazawa on "The Future of AIBO".
|ROBOT VIRTUAL REALITY NAVIGATION/CONTROL SOFTWARE|
Typically, software for controlling robot movement accompanies the robot system & makes use of Virtual Reality simulations of the control panel & robot components to some degree. Examples of some of the more approachable systems listed in the preceding sections are presented below:
SFRSA SUPPLEMENTAL LIAISON RESOURCES
Pitsco Lego Dacta Catalog
LabVIEW Student Edition
Red Rover Control Screen
NASA Robotics Education Project (REP)
JPL Web Interface For Telescience (WITS)
Ames Virtual Environment Vehicle Interface (VEVI)
JPL/Ames "WITS+VEVI" Rover Control Station (RoCS)
Special Interest Group (SIG)
Master Studio (original motion & sound scripts)
Navigator (remote operation, navigation, conversation, viewing)
A robust approach is to build a VR World populated by robots and the objects they may encounter, perhaps with varying degrees of simulated physics properties that might accurately emulate various events. Examples would include slopes or collisions with other objects. A recent entry in the VR World arena is Adobe Atmosphere, one of whose main proponents, Bruce Dahmer, founder of Digitalspace Corp., is engaged in building for NASA Ames, a virtual habitat on Mars slated for potential use in the NASA Mars 2003 mission (demonstrated at the the recent Exploratorium-hosted CyberArts Celebration), and a Dashboard for the International Space Station. Additionally, for NASA Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) January 2004 MER landings on Mars, Bruce has put together an Atmosphere (updated with Physics simulator) Virtual World website called "Drive on Mars" that can model mars surface that MER sees and allow people to drive on Mars virtually.
Digitalspace Mars Habitat (from SFRSA CyberArts report)
Drive On Mars (from SFRSA announcement)
|ROBOT VIRTUAL PROTOTYPING AND PHYSICAL FABRICATION|
Robots can be designed, tested & prototyped using a suite of Solid Modeling/Simulation, Stereolithographic & AI software. Some commonly seen favorites are listed, followed by a case study using all the resources below (& then some) to create an actual Artificial Intelligence/Life robot, ATR/Genobyte's CAM-Brain Machine (CBM) driven Robot Kitten "Robokoneko":
"SolidWorks" 3D Modeling Software is initially used for the mechanical design, to model the components of a robot.
"COSMOS/Works" & "Moldflow Part Advisor" optimize load/boundary conditions & material choices for components via mesh Finite Element Analysis.
"Working Model" Motion Simulation is then used to "create fully functioning virtual prototypes of the most complex mechanical designs" with it's support for the "...full range of physical phenomena, including, mechanical dimensions, weight, distribution of mass, motor types, torque, positioning, friction in joints and the ground, dynamic and static loads, gravity, moments of inertia, spring elasticity and loading, collision and proximity detection". Another popular choice is Mechanical Dynamics "ADAMS" (Mechanical Dynamics Mechanical Design Simulation) / Virtual Prototyping software.
"Stratasys Genisys 3D Printer", "Innovative Solution 3D Systems SLA-3500" stereolithography printers & "Surfware Surfcam CAD/CAM Systems" are used to create 3D models directly from engineering plans by carving the designs directly out of various materials. Jobs can be run and paid-for on a per-unit basis at stereolithographic service bureaus and model shop locations in a manner similar to using machines at a Xerox copy center.
Robots can be created from engineering plans using a "personal fabricator" such as "eMachineShop, an application that produces a physical 3-D copy of almost anything...The concept is simple: Boot up your computer and design whatever object you can imagine, press a button to send the CAD file to...[a personal fabricator shop, where your job is run on the various cutter, milling, vacuum former & injection molding machines listed below, & in a few weeks later they'll]...FedEx you the physical object", as noted in a recent Wired magazine article on desktop manufacturing titled "The Dream Factory":
can be used to design the robot & direct the fabrication machine shop cutter
Animal motion and behavior studies such as those carried out at the UCB Poly-pedal Lab & MIT's Leg Lab, sometimes augmented with motion capture suits, can extract the characteristics of such activities as legged movement. Suites of characteristics can be used to produce motion-script files which can be run on 3D animated computer models of biologically-inspired robots in physics-based computer simulations. These VR 3-D Kinematic Animation Modeling with Physics Properties studies can be used to develop Robot Control systems.
Artificial Intelligence and Related Software
Artificial Intelligence (AI) software: A promising application is developing applied dynamic artificial intelligence. The robot can connect via wireless mobile software to a PC Server farm, even a hyper-threaded multi-processor parallel PC array, running sophisticated integrated Artificial Intelligence software ensembles. Such software collections can include Genetic Algorithms, Neural Nets, Fuzzy Logic, Expert Systems, Intelligent Agents, Help Desk, Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, Optical Character Recognition, and Speech Recognition/Synthesis. As the robot encounters challenging situations, data is transmitted from the robot to the AI system. The AI system mines and crunches the data until intelligent methods and procedures are found. These are then transmitted back to robot to try. A classic example is using a Genetic Algorithm/Neural Net combination to get smarter at solving some task in real time such as a competition ball game or maze navigation event. Another is remote field office problem determination/solving and delivery of technical expertise via Help Desk and Intelligent Agent resources.
A low-cost Humanoid toy for prototyping wireless AI applications is the
recently announced "Dr. Robot".
In the simple case, the script may run directly on the hardware robot until the GA achieves optimum performance. The complex case may run the script repeatedly entirely on the software robot computer simulation until optimum results are achieved, at which point the final script is downloaded to the hardware robot. A typical application is running a Genetic Algorithm on a working model robot simulator to evolve optimum movement and behavior.
Artificial Intelligence Resources
PC AI magazine
AI "off-the-shelf" applications: Genetic Algorithm / Neural Net Software
SFRSA "Robots!" report
("Britainís Kevin Morrick...team of tiny, insect brain power robots...")
Advanced Genetic Algorithm work
James Martin "Computers Will Save Us" article
(Note: do a Find or scroll down to where it reads "The engine of this transformation...alien intelligence...using genetic algorithms...")
Genetic Programming (Inventor of Genetic Programming (GP), Stanford University's John Koza's comprehensive GP website)
"Evolving Virtual Creatures" Genetic Algorithm Demo (Scientific American Frontiers "Robot Independence" Karl Sims segment) (Note: Click the thumbnail graphic, wait for the "Scientific American...Virage Video" player to appear; the player will take a while to download and start playing; if the page doesn't come up initially, click "Refresh")
(Dynamical & Evolutionary Machine Organization):
Robot Kitten Case Study
ATR HIP (Kyoto, Japan) / Genobyte's CAM-Brain Machine (CBM) driven Robot Kitten Robokoneko. Some salient quotes from Genobyte & Robokoneko-related sites offer the following exploration of the attempt to create kitten-like behavior in a robot:
Francisco Robotics Society of America