The Paxmobile!
The Paxmobile!

The array of robotic platforms and control systems is truly staggering these days.  No more so than at the potential entry points for those of us who are “non-experts” but who can see the value in such technologies.

Stanley the self-driving car in 2005. Image source: AI Magazine.
Stanley, Stanford University’s self-driving car in 2005. Image source: AI Magazine.
Phantom ROV shell.

While not all of us got to park next to the first iteration of the Google Car every day (although truth be told that was at my previous university and back before it was DARPA-winning project of the Stanford Computer Science Department, pre-Google X ownership) or stumble upon old deep sea probes lying around in need of repair (like our Phantom 500), most of us can afford any of the toy-esque technologies out there at increasingly cheaper price points.

Dr. A's (actually he wasn't yet a "Dr.") Catalina dive crew, July 1998.
Dr. A’s (actually he wasn’t yet a “Dr.”) Catalina dive crew, July 1998.

One of our honorary AARR lab members from our distant San Francisco subdivision, Pax (the son of our great lab member emeritus who did all the heavy lifting for me in the era when we SCUBA dove* for a living and ran our Creek Monkey Crew’s across the hot Palo Alto hillsides…but I digress), has shown that even a youngster who can’t reach the kitchen sink can create and control his own robot.  If you can click together Legos and move a cursor on a screen (or tap the screen of your iPad if you tastes run to that flavor of interface), you can use Makeblock‘s symbolic/GUI-based programming interface to program a small robot to do just about anything.  Pax just built and programmed his $75 mBot-Blue to pick-up his extra legos, drive them over to his Lego box (where Dad can help them out of the payload bay), and then return.  m-Bot uses the Scratch 2.0 architecture to program its Arduino brain.  Next task: build a robot to drive us all the next Star Wars Premier (the Pax and the Dax crowds are big Star Wars fans).  No pressure, but we are counting on you Pax!

For those who might be a bit taller, there are many more options to enter into the world of robotics.  From the ground up approaches of open source programming built around Arduinos and Raspberry Pis architecture to the more dedicated robot forms from manufacturers such as Parallax and Aerial Sports League, there is something for everyone out there.

Our most recent trial with entry level robots arrived a few weeks ago.  Robolink’s Kickstarter-funded Co-Drone (note: no link here as their site apparently has malware running on it as of this writing) promises to be a micro quadcopter easily programmable to do whatever you want.  I backed this first model to experiment with and see if it might serve as a “first drone” for my undergraduate ESRM 370: Introduction to Remotely Piloted Systems class.  If it ultimately turns out to be as user friendly as advertised, it might make a great replacement for our existing step of “first flight” that currently uses Hubsan micro quads.  Our “first flight” follows on the heels of student mastery of computer-based flight simulators, but doesn’t feature any introduction to control system/programming (as of now).

In short there are no shortages of entry points for those who might want to dip their toe into the robot pool.  I’d love to hear about your first dalliance into robotics.  What year was it and what platform did you use?


Note: * For all you grammaristas out there “dove” is what we all say these days.  Not “dived.”  Just ask Google’s ngram.

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