Everyone should build a robot

Some of you may have seen the 80s movie Short Circuit. It's about an experimental military robot named Johnny Five, which after being struck by lightning, became sentient.

Like most kids, I was fascinated (and still is) by robots and always wanted one. In the sequel of Short Circuit, the creator of Johnny Five made a small toy version of the robot. Boy, I wanted one so badly. 

 A restored movie prop of Johnny Five by  Tom Spina Designs .

A restored movie prop of Johnny Five by Tom Spina Designs.

First encounter 

For my final semester project in college, despite being more of a software guy, I somehow decided to build a robot. 

Maybe I was influenced by a Mechatronics senior living next door who was building an 8-legged robot. Or maybe I was looking for some challenge. Most likely, I wasn't thinking straight. 

Back then it was actually much harder, not to mention more expensive, to build a robot. You had to design and fabricate your own circuit boards and program in low level languages. 

I took a toy car and made it controllable through an interface on my computer. Sadly, on the day I had of present my work to my lecturer, it stopped working. 

My toy story

Thanks to that rather "traumatic" experience, I decided to focus on software for my degree's thesis. But after graduating and working for a few years, the itch came back. 

I wanted to build a robot again, one that actually works. So I got myself the Lego Mindstorms. Everything was awesome. 2 of my favourites, Lego and Robots. Win. 

 An older version of Lego Mindstorms.

An older version of Lego Mindstorms.

Since it's a toy, the focus is more on creativity and programming of the robot. They are basically Lego pieces with electronics built into them. All you had to do is put them together and program it. 

Lego Mindstorms and other robotics platform like Rero (a Malaysian brand!) are ideal for kids to start learning about robotics. They get to program and learn about electronics while having fun. 

The robot strikes back

I built a few robots with Lego Mindstorms but soon, like they say, life happens and I forgotten about it. It's probably in a box somewhere, I hope. 

Then a few years ago, at an event in Suria Shopping Mall, the urge to look for the box came back. 

It was a robotics expo and competition named RoboNeo. Organized by Edham, Julkifli and Disney with the support of KPSKTM, it's an annual event aimed at introducing the wonders of robotics to general public. 

There are booths showcasing robots, drones and 3D printers but the real crowd puller is the robotics competition. 

Teams compete to build robots that autonomously perform tasks like solving mazes, sumo with each other and this year, there's even a combat category. 

 Our Arduino robot with 3 ultrasonic sensors 

Our Arduino robot with 3 ultrasonic sensors 

I gave it a try and joined one of the autonomous category with John. We had to program an Arduino Robot to follow lines and solve a maze. Lady Luck was kind to us and we won the first place. 

Everyone should build a robot

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m pretty bad with hardware and electronics. But I still think building a robot is something everyone must try at least one.

It’s one of those rare activity that’s multi-disciplinary. You get to mess with electronics, explore the wonders of programming while engaging with your imagination and creativity. 

And if you are a parent, your kids will love it. Building a robot is great in getting them to be interested in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (STEM) 

It's time to start

So, you are convinced that you NEED to build a robot, how do you get started? Well, that depends on how crazy you are.

If you are feeling adventurous and want to build something unique, look around on sites like Instructables for inspiration and guidance. The instructions are usually very detailed but you do have to source the parts and put them together yourself. Plus, have the patience to read the instructions.

 Reading like a boss...err robot

Reading like a boss...err robot

For the rest of us who aren’t as talented in electronics or just lazy, start with a robotics kit. These are ideal for kids too since you don’t have to solder the electronics yourself. Budget wise, Lego Mindstorms and Rero may be on the high side, but there are a lot of other options too.

Those of you who are in Kota Kinabalu during the month of November this year, check out Roboneo at Suria Shopping Mall. Don’t miss the robotics competition and if you are ready to join in the fun, registrations for the various categories are still open.

With electronics becoming cheaper day by day (thanks China!) and access to endless amount of information online, now it's the perfect time to fulfil your childhood dream of building a robot! And if you didn't like robot when you were kid, well it's not too late to start now.


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