Robotics Guide For Beginners

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  • This is a miniFAQ and Robotics Guide for Beginners. If you are looking for our popular Robot Kits for Beginners, click here.

John Piccirillo, Ph.D. | 8 pages

What’s New | Why A Mini-FAQ? | Scope | Information Surveys | Robot Club Websites | Books |

Magazines | Suppliers | Mobile Robot Kits | Microcontrollers | Newsgroups | Listservers | Copyright

 

What’s New?

This updated guide:

  • Adds new book references
  • Adds a new category on kits and manufactured platforms
  • Updates and adds a few links

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Why a MiniFaq?

Requests for information on robotics from beginners appears from time-to-time on various newsgroups and list servers. The response to these requests is highly variable depending on when and how the request is stated. Sometimes no reply is given at all. The official Robotics FAQ is a lengthy document that may be imposing to a beginner and, running at over 400 pages, is burdensome to read on-line or to download and print. Hence the perceived need on my part for a miniFAQ that covers some of the basics while being admittedly limited in scope, making no pretension towards completeness or political correctness. This document is oriented for beginners to robotics.

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Scope

This miniFAQ is intended as a source to find the answers to questions most often posed by beginners – where do I start?, what do I need to know?, where can I find information and supplies?, and where do I go for help? The sources of information given here are only from my personal perspective and comprise a list of sources that I have found useful. Enough links are provided so that those interested can find what they are looking for (in the way of robotics). I have endeavored to make the miniFAQ concise and have not included references to material on pick-and-place or remote-controlled machinery.

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Information Surveys

  1. Official Robotics FAQ. A larger, more comprehensive FAQ may be found at www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/robotics-faq. This is a handy indexed, on-line version in HTML. A downloadable version in five parts is available via ftp at ftp://rtfm.mit.edu/pub/usenet/news.answers/robotics-faq/
  2. An Index to Robot Web Pages http://piglet.cs.umass.edu:4321/cgi-bin/robotics/
  3. Robotics Internet Resources Page http://robotics.cs.umass.edu/robotics.html
  4. JPL/NASA Robotics Reference Page http://robotics.jpl.nasa.gov/
  5. Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) www.auvsi.org
  6. Google Search Engine Results for ‘Robotics’ www.google.co.uk/search?q=robotics
  7. BEAM Robotics – a minimalist, counter-culture approach to robotics. http://www.robotmag.com/redirect.htm?uri=http://sst.lanl.gov/robot/

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Robot Club Web Pages

These pages have a broad list of links, newsletters, and other information on robotics.

  1. Dallas Personal Robotics Group www.dprg.org
  2. Seattle Robotics Society www.seattlerobotics.org
  3. Portland Area Robotics Society www.rdrop.com/users/marvin
  4. Austin Robot Group www.robotgroup.org

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Books

A selection of books geared toward mobile robots is presented below. For further information and ordering go to www.robotbooks.com, or www.fatbrain.com.

  1. “Mobile Robots: Inspiration To Implementation,” 2nd edition, by Jones, Flynn, and Seiger, 1998. ISBN 1-56881-097-0. A very good overview of mobile robots and subsystems. Goes into satisfying detail on many robot subsystems, including behavior-based control architecture. The book gives two detailed examples of mobile robots.
  2. “The Robot Builder’s Bonanza: 99 Inexpensive Robotics Projects,” 2nd edition, by Gordon McComb, 2000. ISBN: 0071362967. Covers many areas at an beginning level: tools needed, sensors, motors, batteries, materials, etc. This is a vastly enlarged and improved edition of the 1987 classic, about double the length, and has corrected the errors of the first edition. Errata are available at www.robotoid.com. This is a very good book to read for general ideas and techniques.
  3. “Introduction to AI Robotics”, by Robin R. Murphy, 2000. ISBN 0-262-13383-0. This is an excellent book, the first of it’s kind on the market that I know of, that covers the essentials of artificial intelligence as applied to programming robots. Written as a textbook it presents behavior-based techniques in sufficient detail for the reader to apply the techniques. There is also a large section on navigation techniques, some of which is mathematically intense.
  4. “Practical Electronics for Inventors”, by Paul Scherz, 2000. ISBN 0-07-058078-2. This is a good,introductory book on electronics. It covers the basics at a practical level with some excellent analogies. The author uses mathematical expressions occasionally, including derivatives and integrals, but calculus is definitely not required for understanding the text. The coverage is very good and I would recommend this over The Art of Electronics in simplicity and straightforward applications. As a first edition, there are a number of errors in the some of the mathematical expressions.
  5. “Practical Robotics: Principles and Applications,” by Bill Davies, 1997. ISBN 0-968183-0-X. Written as a text for a course in engineering design, this is a very useful compendium on mechanical and electronic construction techniques, lots of practical tips and homebrew sensors.
  6. “Sensors for Mobile Robots: Theory and Application,” by H. R. Everett, 1995. ISBN 1-56881-048-2. An excellent book that goes into detail on a great many sensors, from simple to very complex. An excellent reference book. Some parts are highly technical.
  7. “Artificial Intelligence and Mobile Robots: Case Studies of Successful Robot Systems,” by Kortenkamp, Bonasso, and Murphy, 1998. ISBN 0-262-61137-6. Case studies of working robots in the areas of mapping and navigation, vision, and mobile robot architectures. Some chapters are easy to read, but mostly this is at an intermediate-reading level.
  8. “Navigating Mobile Robots: Systems and Techniques,” by J. Borenstein, H. R. Everett, Liqiang Feng, 1996. ISBN 1-56881-058-X. Surveys the state of the art in sensors, systems, methods, and technologies used in mobile robot navigation, detailing relative and absolute position measures including odometry; inertial navigation; active beacons; artificial and natural landmark recognition; and model matching. A little advanced in parts.
  9. “Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species”, by Menzel and D’Aluiso, 2000. ISBN 0-262-13382-2. This book is a collection of a great many photographs and interviews with robot researchers around the world. There is a lot of coverage on anthropomorphic robots (ignore the hideous cover) but many others are covered as well. Some very brief specs are given for the various robots. A good non-technical overview of current research.
  10. “Service Robots: Products, Scenarios, Visions”, by Schraft and Schmierer, 2000. ISBN 1-56881-109-8. The book defines service robots as those between industrial and personal robots, and surveys current products and research in seventeen service sectors from agriculture to underwater. The coverage seems weighed toward European efforts but covers research from around the world. I would have liked larger photographs and a clearer distinction between products, working models, prototypes, and just ideas.
  11. “The CMOS Handbook,” by Don Lancaster, revised by Howard Berlin, 1987. ISBN 0 672-22459-3. A classic. Although somewhat dated, an excellent introduction on CMOS chips, logic, timers, counters, shift registers, etc. with very worthwhile tutorial sections on basic digital circuits.
  12. “Easy PIC’n” (ISBN 0-9654162-0-8), “PIC’n up the Pace” (ISBN 0-9654162-1-6), and “PIC’n Techniques” (ISBN 0-9654162-3-2) by David Benson. Introductory and intermediate level books on programming the PIC microcontrollers. Also, “Serial PIC’n” (ISBN 0-9654162-2-4) by Roger Stevens, a comprehensive text for implementing serial communications between a Microchip PIC microcontroller and an external device. I highly recommend these books. Square One Electronics, www.sq-1.com, (707) 279-8881. These are the simplest books on PIC programming referenced here. Also see 10. and 11 below.
  13. “Programming and Customizing The PIC Microcontroller,” by Myke Predko, 1998. ISBN 0-07-913646-X. Introduction to PIC hardware features and programming techniques taught through dozens of experiments and projects. More rigorous than “Easy PIC’n” but still an introductory guide to PIC programming.
  14. “Programming and Customizing the Basic Stamp Microcontroller,” by Scott Edwards, 1998. ISBN 0-07-913683-2. Assumes no special prior knowledge, well illustrated and full of example code.

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Magazines

  1. Robot Science & Technology. A bi-monthly publication covering all aspects of robotics at the amateur level, highly recommended. A beginner-friendly web site at: www.robotmag.com Robot Science & Technology, 3875 Taylor Road, Suite 200, Loomis, CA 95650, (888) 510-7728, fax: (916) 660-0730.
  2. Nuts & Volts. A monthly, tabloid-sized publication of electronics, including amateur radio, cellular communications, scanning, computers, amateur robotics, lasers, and more along with build-it-yourself electronics project. Lots and lots of ads. Supporting web page at www.nutsvolts.com. Nuts & Volts Magazine, 430 Princeland Court, Corona, CA 91719 USA . Phone: (909) 371-8497.
  3. There are many electronic magazines that indirectly support robotics such as Poptronics (www.gernsback.com) and Circuit Cellar Ink (www.circellar.com). I suggest browsing these at newsstands to find those that are compatible with your skill level and interests.

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Suppliers

This is where to get the stuff. There are three general categories; Radio Shack, local electronics or ham radio surplus stores, and mail order. Mail order carries the largest selection and generally the best price. Radio Shack is good when you need just a couple of something and don’t want to wait, but the unit price can be two or three times the mail order price. Some of my favorite catalog suppliers, in no special order are:

  1. Jameco, www.jameco.com A great variety of parts, components, kits, semiconductors, etc. Good source at good prices. (800) 831-4242.
  2. Digikey, www.digikey.com Complete catalog of all the standard electronic parts. Also carries Basic Stamp, lots of Microchip parts, and a modest variety of semiconductors. Speedy service, moderate prices.(800) 344-4539.
  3. Herbach and Rademan, www.herbach.com Surplus parts. Good source for small motors and a variety of mechanical parts. (800) 848-8001.
  4. All Electronics, www.allelectronics.com. Excellent prices for electronic odds and ends. (800) 826-5432.
  5. Small Parts, www.small-parts.com/ Rod, bar, sheet, tube, screw, fasteners, and all manner of small mechanical parts in a variety of metal and plastic materials. Informative catalog. Check prices with other sources. (800) 220-4242.
  6. Alltronics, www.alltronics.com Variety of electronic parts. (408) 943-9773.
  7. Hosfelt Electronics, www.hosfelt.com Misc. electronic parts, very good prices. (800) 524-6464.
  8. Mouser Electronics, www.mouser.com Large selection of semiconductors and other components. (800) 346-6873.
  9. Radio Shack, www.radioshack.com/ Large selection of electronic parts, tools, and kits, and other goodies. (800) 442-7221.
  10. C and H Sales, http://aaaim.com/CandH/index.htm On-line catalog a little cumbersome; printed catalog sent with order. Very good selection of DC gearhead motors.
  11. 11. Electronics Goldmine, www.goldmine-elec.com Small catalog of odds and ends, stock moves quickly. (800) 445-0697.
  12. Marlin P. Jones, www.mpja.com Misc. electronics parts. (800) 652-6733.
  13. Tower Hobbies, www.towerhobbies.com General hobby plane, boat, car supplier, but also carries small servo motors and a variety of wheels. (800) 637-4989.

Small businesses specializing in microprocessors, sensors, electronics parts, kits, etc. useful for building robots. These sites are worth visiting.

  1. Acroname Electronics, www.acroname.com
  2. HVW Technologies, www.hvwtech.com
  3. Wirz Electronics, www.wirz.com
  4. Robot Books, www.robotbooks.com
  5. Robot Store, www.robotstore.com

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Mobile Robot kits & Platforms

Many beginners prefer not to build a robot base and are more interested in programming an existing mobile platform and adding sensors and functionality. In contrast to the other parts of this miniFAQ, I don’t have any personal experience with these kits and offer no evaluation of their merits. Kits and pre-built platforms offer a fast entry to building a working robot, at the expense however of higher cost and a generic design that probably isn’t best suited to your intended application. Bought platforms can in many cases be modified and expanded, and are less frustrating to build for those without the tools, experience, or inclination for home construction. These products are available from the manufacturer, toy stores, and some of the suppliers above such as Acroname (www.acroname.com), Robot Books (www.robotbooks.com), and Robot Store (www.robotstore.com). You may also find these and other kits by searching the Internet.

  1. GrowBot. A robot powered by a Basic Stamp microcontroller. Available from Parallax Inc. (www.parallaxinc.com).
  2. Lynxmotion (http://www.lynxmotion.com/) offers a variety of walking and rolling robots, as well as robotic arm kits.
  3. LEGO Mindstorms Robotic Invention System, available at toy stores. LEGO claims that, “A first-time user with basic PC skills can design, program, and build a simple robot within one hour.” This product is suitable for an interested children as young as ten to twelve with parental guidance.
  4. Rug Warrior Pro. Available from A.K. Peters (http://www.akpeters.com/). An advanced kit, featured in the book, “Mobile Robots: Inspiration To Implementation”.
  5. OWI Robot Kits. A variety of small, inexpensive, single function robots Available from Robot Store.
  6. BEAM robots. These are a different breed of robots altogether (visit the BEAM link www.nis.lanl.gov/projects/robot/). Kits are available from www.solarbotics.com/default.asp.

There are many other robot bodies and kits but for themost part the prices are fairly high. You can find these robots advertised in magazines such as Robot Science & Technology or by searching the web.

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Microcontrollers

This section is my personal introduction to those microprocessors I think are suitable for beginners. The simplest would be a Basic Stamp II–the other extreme would be an off-board Unix workstation running LISP. There is a lot of philosophical approach that enters here, as well as practicality, and, unfortunately, much computer machismo, as in my-computer-can-beat-up-your-computer. Since the miniFAQ is meant for beginners, here is my personal view, based upon ease of use:

  1. Basic Stamp. This is the simplest microcontroller to start with. The Basic Stamp is manufactured by Parallax Inc. If you use a Basic Stamp, I suggest the BS IIX version. The price is modest ($59 as of this date), there are good introductory books, lots of application notes and projects, and an active list server. It programs from a PC, and uses a form of the BASIC computer language (called PBasic). The manual and programming software are free from the manufacturer. The downside is that the processor is slow, memory space supports about 2000 instructions, I/O pin count is 16, and there are no interrupts or timers available. But you can’t beat the price or the simplicity for a beginning system. Order from Parallax www.parallaxinc.com or many of the electronics catalogs or suppliers listed above.
  2. BasicX microcontroller. A new kid on the block, this microcontroller supports a multi-tasking operating system, floating point math functions, a basic language compiler, and 32 K of memory. The BX-24, a 24 pin DIP that is pin compatible with the Basic Stamp II (i.e. You can substitute it in the same socket) are $59 and a development system, including BX-24, is $ 99. The development software and manuals can be downloaded from Netmedia’s web site, www.basicx.com. The BasicX is far superior to the Basic Stamp in speed and function; however, if you are an absolute beginner, the documentation and application notes are less developed. The BasicX programming language is modeled after Visual Basic.
  3. PIC microcontroller. There are several different varieties available. Beginners often favor the 16F84, but many more EEPROM varieties are now available. The programming software and manuals are free from the manufacturer, Microchip. Look for the MPLAB package at www.microchip.com The individual chips cost about $10. On the downside you need to purchase a programmer (from $60 to $199), and you’ll need to put together a small board to carry the micro, its oscillator, and connection pins (printed circuit boards for $10 available from MicroEngineering Labs, www.melabs.com/mel/home.htm) The advantages to using a PIC are: you have a lot more control over program structure and timing, access to interrupts, and execution speed is much faster. Order from Digikey for the largest variety. Ordinarily PICs are programmed in assembly language (see the books section above), but compilers are available for PBasic and “lite” versions of C.
  4. PICStic. A series of Stamp-like microcontrollers, but with more capability and faster execution time. Uses a compiler for the Basic Stamp I version of PBasic. A compiler for the Basic Stamp II Pbasic is available from MicroEngineering Labs for $ 199. The PICStic also allows the use of assembly language programming and access to the PICs timers and interrupts.. Prices vary $29 to $89, plus the development system is $129. Order from Micromint www.micromint.com
  5. Handyboard. This is a relatively painless way to using the Motorola 68hc11 chip. The Handyboard contains the microcontroller, an LCD for debugging, 1 Amp motor drivers, a rechargeable battery pack, and 32K of battery backed RAM. Additionally, the package comes with good documentation and a free ware version of Interactive C, a multi-tasking version of C for the Handyboard. Cost of the complete package is $284 from Gleason Research, www.gleasonresearch.com For technical details visit the MIT Media Laboratory site,http://el.www.media.mit.edu/projects/handy-board/

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List Servers

There are a great many of these. To avoid being inundated you can often subscribe to a digest version. I don’t have a good list of list servers but three I recommend for help with microcontrollers are:

  1. Basic Stamp list. Send a message to: majordomo@parallaxinc.com., with the word help in the body of the message. Instructions will be emailed back to you; save them for future reference.
  2. PIC list. Send a message to: LISTSERV@mitvma.mit.edu, with the word help in the body of the message. Save the returned instructions for future reference.

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News Groups

  1. comp.robotics.misc
  2. comp.robotics.research
  3. sci.electronics.design
  4. sci.electronics.misc

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Copyright Notice

This miniFAQ was compiled and written by John Piccirillo. This FAQ may be referenced as: John Piccirillo (2001) “Robotics miniFAQ for Beginners”. This post, as a collection of information, is Copyright (c) 2001 by John Piccirillo. The removal of this notice is forbidden. This FAQ may be posted to any USENET newsgroup, on-line service, or BBS as long as it is posted in its entirety and includes this copyright statement. This FAQ may not be distributed for financial gain or included in commercial collections or compilations without express written permission from the author. Please send changes, additions, suggestions and questions to:

John Piccirillo, Ph.D.

Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering

ECE Mobile Robot Laboratory

University of Alabama in Huntsville

Huntsville, AL 35899

email: jpicciri@eb.uah.edu

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