A MakerPro's first foray into robotics

In 2000, after getting pretty good grades in my first semester of engineering school, I was allowed to briefly* join the honors college. This meant that I got to take a much more interesting version of Engineering 102, where we were tasked with building robots to find their way around an obstacle course. You know, the kind of thing kids seem to do in middle or high school now.

I had a great time, and it was my first experience programming with a development board, which was the Basic Stamp II from Parallax. After getting my own board months later, I got to work building my own robot, which was based on one I’d seen a vague description and pictures of online. It’s weird to think about now with the current abundance of YouTube videos and STEM programs, but this was the first time I’d seen this kind of robot – a simple hexapod with three servos – online. In this case, one servo caused the robot’s body to tilt left and right, while the other two made the front and back legs go forward and backwards in pairs. It was a simple but effective walking motion.

After a week or two of work programming and cutting legs out of wood and screws, I had something that worked, if just barely. I improved upon it over the next year or so, making it into something that did actually work pretty well, with a slow, interesting gait.

Practical lessons learned

Soon after building this contraption, I started on a co-op program (or extended internship) where I would be given access to true machine tools. Instead of thinking tolerances of 1/16” were quite good, I could now hold things to within a few thousandths of an inch. This made a huge difference, and after remaking some parts out of polycarbonate, the look and function of everything was much better.

Another great lesson I learned, both from that job and searching the Internet, is that there is a whole world of fasteners and small components out there that can make the details of your project much better. Instead of bent paper clips for control rods, I started using threaded rods with eyelets made for model airplanes and the like. Instead of Phillips or flathead screws, I started using hex machine screws. There is a lot of stuff out there if you know where to look.

There were many other things I leaned through this build process, but getting practical experience in industry helped with this build and throughout my career. There is something to be said for being able to actually build, or at least understand how to build, most of the stuff you design.

Robotics today

Today, things have changed quite a bit. I’ve built and set up many robots and robotic systems, both in industrial applications, and for my own amusement. Personally, I’m not sure why I find this kind of thing so fascinating. Perhaps it’s the ability to create something that imitates in some small capacity the abilities of a human. Or maybe it’s the blinking lights and fun noises, or even the smell of new electronics. Who knows?

On a broader level, robotics isn’t just in the realm of advanced university courses and industry, but is taught at a much younger age with programs like FIRST. Although I don’t necessarily think individual kids should be pushed into STEM fields simply for the sake of keeping up with whatever standard has been set, I think it’s great that people are given the opportunity to discover these interests at a young age.

With outlets like YouTube, exposure in schools, and the availability of much cheaper development boards, opportunities for learning interesting technology are everywhere. After all, an Arduino clone development board can be had for a few dollars, and searching Google for “how to build a hexapod robot” yields 67,400 results as of this writing. It’s an exciting time to grow up, and it will be interesting to see what kind of robots the next generation of hackers and MakerPros come up with.

*After getting fairly marginal grades my second semester, I graduated without completing the honors program. I didn’t realize it was my meticulous studying during the previous semester that had paid off – not just my inherent brilliance. Discovering Starcraft didn’t help either. So final lesson, keep studying even if things look good! The process of learning isn’t always fun, but if you want to work with technology at a high level, you generally have to pass calculus 2.

Jeremy S. Cook is a freelance tech journalist and engineering consultant with over 10 years of factory automation experience. An avid maker and experimenter, you can see some of his exploits on the Jeremy Cook’s Projects YouTube Channel.