My experience with robotics involved some brief hands-on in college and a large amount of hands-on with the LEGO Mindstorms robotics kit. It was the Mindstorms NXT kit that reignited my interest in robotics five years ago and got me wanting to learn more. I’ve since built a handful of small robots using Stamp and Arduino micro controllers as well as even simpler devices with less complex electronics components.
What I find so interesting about the current state of robotics is the sheer speed at which the field (and, to most of us, the hobby) is progressing. Just a decade ago a robot kit might run in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But today, it’s quite feasible to build and program a robot for under $50… and in many cases, less than even $20.
While a solid background in electronics is helpful, it’s not always an absolute requirement. I will admit that books such as Make: Electronics have helped me further my skills and increase the complexity of the robots I am willing to attempt to build, but I’m also finding that with microcontrollers such as the Arduino, much of the electronics knowledge is handled behind-the-scenes or at least shifted to the programming side of the robot building process.
There are many books available these days on building robots, and I own quite a few of them. I take bits from one, pieces from another, and in some instances completely toss other books in the donation pile after reading and discovering they’re either too complex for non-electrical engineers or too simplistic to create robots that can actually perform useful tasks beyond wandering around a room and bumping into walls. I occasionally get invited to talk to teachers and students around the Atlanta area about robotics (mainly Mindstorms NXT, but sometimes just for a general discussion) and I’m frequently asked if there are any good books that I can recommend for the non-engineer crowd. Three weeks ago, I still wouldn’t have had a solid recommendation for them. But now, 680+ pages later, I finally have a book that I can recommend to teachers, parents, kids, and really anyone who wants to learn to build robots but doesn’t know where to start. I’ll tell them the place to start is buying a copy of Robot Builder’s Bonanza.
Robot Builder’s Bonanza by Gordon McComb makes no assumptions, and that’s what I love about this kind of book. It’s an all-encompassing book that literally starts by defining what a robot is (and isn’t), defines its parts, explains what’s available in kit form and what’s available in terms of components and new technologies. This is the 4th Edition, and it’s been updated to include the latest tech and tricks available to hobbyists. It’s a monster of a book, I kid you not — 48 chapters and 4 appendices. But after reading the entire book, I am convinced that this is THE book that anyone wanting to learn to build and program robots must have on their shelves.
Let me start with the basics of the book first. As I mentioned, Gordon starts out by providing some basic information on the hobby in general, talking about costs involved, skills you should begin developing, and discussing the pros and cons of kits versus build-it-yourself robots. Early chapters cover the basics of robot functions and components and then move into sourcing the parts. The quality of this type of information is high — I was quite surprised to find a number of suggestions for locating parts and some of the materials that could be used in robot building that I’d never considered. (This became even more important in later chapters that discuss the concept of rapid prototyping.)
I told you that Gordon makes no assumptions about your skill level, and that becomes very apparent in Part 2 of the book when he introduces you to the various safety issues, tools and their usage, and the standard techniques used in robot building. Coverage of materials is excellent, and Gordon discusses wood, plastic, and metals, each in their own chapter along with solid examples of cutting, drilling, and other robot manufacturing methods specific to those materials. After each materials chapter, you’ll also find a follow-up chapter that gives you a hands-on robot to build, complete with parts list (including options), templates, and step-by-steps to build each of the robots. I was particularly impressed with the plastics chapter, mainly because it’s a material I prefer to work with given its price and how easy it is to cut, drill, glue, and modify. That said, the metals chapter was just what I needed to expand my limited knowledge on working with various metals for building frames and on selecting the thicknesses and types of metal used in various situations.
Gordon also provides excellent coverage of fastening theory — nuts, bolts, screws, brackets, and more. I work with wood quite a bit, but even I was surprised at how much I did NOT know when it came to properly connecting various materials. I’d like to add here that throughout the book, Gordon does a top-notch job of providing tons of images — photos, schematics, templates, and close-up images of the various topics of discussion. The line drawings in this book are sharp, easy to read, and very accurate. I don’t know who the tech editor was on the book, but a tip of the hat to an outstanding job of catching errors and fixing them before they made it to print.
Part 3 of the book covers batteries — all kinds, really. You will get a solid education in batteries, power systems, wiring, and other basics of electricity. You’re not going to pass a professional electrical engineer’s exam, but you’ll have what you need to make certain your robots can get power, get the right amount of power, and how to protect the sensitive components from the dangers of high and low voltage/current.
Want to learn the pros and cons of the various methods of moving a robot around? Coverage of wheels, legs, tracks, and other interesting methods are covered, along with some of the most detailed coverage of motors I’ve seen in any robotics book. The chapter on DC motors and the chapter on servos are, in my opinion, worth the price of the book just based on how many questions they answered, many of those being questions that had never even occurred to me! Seriously — pages 230 to 283 will give you everything you ever wanted to know about motors, shafts, bushings, bearings, rotation, control, mounting, drivetrains, linkage, gearing, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten something… but it’s in there. Gordon closes out Part 3 with a short discussion of SMA, or Shape Memory Alloy. I have absolutely no idea if or when I’ll ever use this information, but it’s such a cool technology (you may have heard it called Muscle Wire or Flexinol) that I’m just glad to be aware of it and understand (now) how it works.
By the way, I’m now up to page 297, not even halfway done with the book yet.
Part 4 of the book begins a section of robot projects that are used to teach some basic theory. Chapter 26, for example, is all about building robots with wheels and tracks, so you’ll be given a detailed discussion on the mechanics of these methods before building the BasicBot, a twin-deck two wheel/one ball caster using an easy to follow template for cutting and drilling the body. Following that is a project to build a 4 wheel robot, a more complex design but Gordon doesn’t skimp on the coverage of what’s involved in making a 4 wheel robot that can turn properly. He even includes some basic instructions for using a chain drive to control the front and back wheel (in a pairing). This leads (logically) into tank-style robots along with one kick-butt hands-on project that involves some relatively inexpensive parts (from the Tamiya toy line — break-off plastic parts that will remind you of plastic model parts that you twist and wiggle to break the small plastic connectors holding them in place) and a hand-built frame. Total cost of the robot is under $25.
Chapter 27 goes over legs – I’m not fond of these kinds of robots as they seem much more complex (and are) when it comes to building them for proper movement. Still, after reading the chapter, I’m definitely game to try and build a walker. Gordon covers details for bipeds, quads, and hexapods (six legs), and misses nothing — balance, degrees of freedom, material, components (kit and hand-built), control, and gait to name a few. You’ll also find a really cool 3-servo hexapod project to build, with super-detailed construction instructions and parts list.
Part 4 finishes out by giving you more detailed discussion on servos, including a robot arm project that would be easy enough for any middle school student to follow along with some adult supervision… and end with one super-cool science fair project! Gordon goes one step further and finishes up the section with very detailed (and easy to follow) steps to build a gripper that’s perfect for mounting on the end of that robot arm. (Gordon’s solution for using a servo and a small tool clamp is genius. Simple… but genius.)
And now we get to Part 5… Electronics. I know personally how overwhelming the topic of electronics can be. All those strange components — resistors, capacitors, integrated circuit chips, and more — seem random and mysterious. But Gordon, once again, makes no assumptions about the reader’s knowledge and skills in this area and begins with some clear and easy to understand instructions on two electronics tools that are so important — multimeter and soldering gun/pencil. You get a full tutorial on using both. In all honestly, using these devices won’t become any easier until you actually use them. The theory is all good and dandy, but I know that Gordon’s assuming here that you’ll actually move beyond reading the concepts introduced and actually take some readings in a circuit or solder some wire or components to a board. You get some basic coverage of resistors, potentiometers, capacitors, LEDs, transistors, and ICs, but I must warn you that this information won’t really sink in until you actually start using them and soldering them into an actual circuit board. Still, it’s good information and Gordon keeps the techno-babble to a minimum.
Now we’re up to page 427 where we begin to learn about the brains of robots. And the book covers a bunch, along with programming — Arduino, PICAXE, BASIC Stamp. Advanced topics such as Digital-to-Analog, remote control, and sensors finish out the last 200+ pages — touch sensors, line following, pressure sensors, proximity/distance detection, robotic eyes, tilt and gravity sensors, and sound… and much more.
As I said earlier: a monster of a book. There are topics I haven’t mentioned that get their own sections or even chapters — smoke detection, adding LCD panels for troubleshooting and human communication, switches and relays, programming tutorials, CAD design… the list goes on. Bringing up the rear are four appendices. Appendix A is, in itself, a complete robotics tutorial on its own — the author has provided even more lessons, including My First Robot, a series of online tutorials, and bonus chapters, building templates to print, videos, more robot projects, and parts sourcing lists for all the book’s projects. The online content alone is worth more than the price of the book!
I’ll say it again — this is THE book to own if you want to get into robotics. For students showing an interest in robotics, this is a jump-start guide that will answer hundreds of questions. For DIYers, this book will have you building and programming robots in a very short period of time. It’s a difficult thing to take a complex technical subject and make it available to the masses, but the Robot Builder’s Bonanza has done it.
I’d like to thank Gordon and McGraw Hill for providing me with both printed and digital copies of the book — carrying the actual book with me everywhere would have been a bit much, and having the eBook on my iPad helped me to finish reading this heavy book (at the store, in my car, at the dentist, on the plane…).