TITLE: Tools of the Trade: Building Robots
AUTHOR: Chuck McManis
LAST UPDATE: 21-Jan-2002


Every year more people decide they want to build a robot. This influx of new people brings new ideas, new energy, and more importantly new friends into the robotics community. There isn’t a good estimate of how many hobbiests there are, but some put it in the thousands, others in the tens of thousands, no one things it is as much as a million. So it is not surprising that few magazines, shows, or other media cater to this group exclusively.

One of the first things you have to do when you start this hobby is acquire the necessary tools to help you make your mark. I’ve gone through the three areas, mechanics, electronics, and software, and come up with what I consider the crucial tools to be.

Tools of the Hobby

To work in robotics means to work in a number of engineering disciplines. These include mechanical design, electrical design, and programming. Depending on your skills you may favor one or two of these fields over the other, but every robot seems to include all three pretty much all the time.

Perhaps the most daunting part of building a robot is the electronics involved. Soldering, designing, debugging, and repairing all involve looking at things that aren’t visible to the naked eye but have to be understood… More..

The area many people are fairly comfortable with is the mechanics aspect of building a robot. But wood, plastic, aluminum, or steel each have tools that are very useful. Pick your materials and then make sure you have the right tools on hand… More…

Next there are tools needed to help prototype your ideas, this next page shows a few techniques for prototyping electronic circuits. More …

What you are (and are not) seeing …

Generally the best tool for robotics is located between your ears! I’ve collected what I consider to be the “essential” tool set for building robots for fun. Building Battlebots will require some additional tools that are quite expensive.

There are three skill sets in robotics, and you will need tools to allow to work in all three. The skill sets are:

The tool that I’m not showing here today is a personal computer. There are a number of free programming tools available for the IBM PC type computers, a few are available for Macintosh computers. Generally any PC will do, even a junky old machine running Windows 3.1 and DOS! At the HBRC we have Windows users, Mac users, Linux users, and UNIX users.

Tools to modify mechanisms (drills, rotary tools, saws, etc) should not be used without proper safety equipment and supervision! Don’t let building a robot become a life long memory of when you lost one of your appendages. Power tools speed things up but hand tools may be used as well if you stick to wood and plastic as the basic building materials.

Electronics tools come in handy even when you are not building robots as there are a dozen jobs around that house that can often be accomplished with a few simple tools. Any household that includes a roboticist is lucky!