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Robots for Home: Not Yet the Jetsons

NXT Robot
NXT Robot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
November  3, 2014 Deadline
December 2014 Issue

Robots for Home: Not Yet the Jetsons

Rosie the robot maintained the Jetson household more than 50 years ago. To the disappoint of many of us who still enjoy the classic 1960s cartoon, Rosie remains science fiction. The only robots in our houses are round bumper cars that vacuum floors. The iRobot Roomba offers no witty banter and no sighs of exasperation.

Growing up, I expected Twiki, the android that followed Buck Rogers about for no apparent reason, to become a reality. After all, Twiki didn’t do anything except carry a much smarter talking computer about his neck. Sadly, Rogers was stuck in the twenty-fifth century. All the good androids and robots seem to be way off in the future or in other galaxies.

Although we have no Rosie, robots are on the rise. They build our cars, deliver medications, defuse bombs, explore planets and even perform surgeries. Machines excel at work that can be translated into defined tasks, especially those jobs that are repetitive. If a task is dangerous or grueling, why not give it to a robot?

The best jobs for the future include designing, programming, building and maintaining the machines that are poised to take over the roles of many humans. Young people who explore robotics and programming are more likely to be passionate about those future jobs.

LEGO Mindstorms (http://mindstorms.lego.com) offer a great way to learn about robotics and programming. Yes, these are programmable LEGO kits. Any LEGO kit can be mixed with the base Mindstorms robots, allowing LEGO fanatics the ability to create whatever they can imagine. There are servos for moving joints, claws for grabbing and all sorts of additional pieces available.

All Mindstorms robots begin with an “intelligent brick” that is a complete computer. The brick contains a ARM9 processor, 64 megabytes of RAM, 16 megabytes of system memory and a Mini SDHC slot for up to another 32 gigabytes of storage. The brick runs the Linux operating system, which is also the basis for Google’s Android system. When you glance at it, the brick looks like an original iPod, complete with a small screen.

SciFi fans know a robot needs to see, and LEGO offers a variety of visual sensors for Mindstorms robots: color, infrared and ultrasonic eyes give the robots vision. The visual sensors resemble eyes, because that familiar arrangement enables distance calculations.

Robots need to be programmed. The EV3 programming environment works on Windows and OS X, and there are apps for iOS and Android devices. Dragging and dropping “code blocks” that resemble LEGO bricks makes programming simple.

For those who would rather bolt pieces together to build robots, VEX Robotics (http://www.vexrobotics.com) brings the classic Erector set idea into the twenty-first century. As with Mindstorms, sensors and motors let enthusiasts create functioning robots. Though there are some basic plans included, VEX kits target students and hobbyists interested in creating new robots.

Designing and programming VEX robots requires learning more complex tools, too. Autodesk, the software publisher famous for AutoCAD, provides free design software for VEX robots. Autodesk Education also allows students and teachers to download additional software. By introducing students to CAD applications, they learn industry standard tools.

The RobotC and EasyC programming languages for VEX robots are subsets of the C language. Following the VEX philosophy of developing technical skills, the programming tools resemble popular integrated development environments (IDEs) used by professionals. Enthusiasts have developed RobotC tools for LEGO Mindstorms, too, making it possible to run the same programming code on kits from different vendors.

Learning about robotics teaches students about electronics, physics, math and programming. These are the skills of the future, and the skills already in demand. Too often, these topics are taught through memorization, with drill-and-kill testing instead of hands-on application. Building a robot makes science something real to students.

VEX and LEGO market classroom kits encourage schools to incorporate robotics into science and math lessons. Class or school competitions make robotics more compelling. The suggested competitions range from moving and stacking blocks to robot bowling. VEX also sponsors regional, national and worldwide competitions for students.

Kits offer the ideal introduction to robotics, but some people want to build robots from scratch. Make magazine (http://makezine.com) offers do-it-yourself guides to building robots, alongside guides to almost every DIY project imaginable. The robotics guides focus on Arduino controllers and Raspberry Pi computers, affordable electronics kits for home projects.

The Raspberry Pi is a complete computer, like the LEGO intelligent brick. The Raspberry Pi adds the ability to connect a keyboard and screen, making it possible to program the computer directly. Not only is the Raspberry Pi more powerful than the LEGO brick, it is a fraction of the price. The Raspberry Pi costs $35, compared to $150 or more for the LEGO system.

The low cost of parts to build a Raspberry Pi and Arduino robot might be tempting, but remember that this approach is best suited to serious hobbyists willing to solder wires and learn microcontroller programming. In only an hour, you can assemble and test a simple LEGO Mindstorms kit. In a few hours, with patience, you can assemble and test a basic VEX Robotics kit. But, you can’t build a robot from scratch as quickly.

If you’re interested in buying or building a robot, visit RobotShop.com, the most popular kit vendor online. The LEGO Mindstorms kits are available from many toy and hobby retailers.

Though the kits are expensive, I consider LEGO Mindstorms the best introduction to robotics and programming. The familiarity of LEGOs and the ease of construction allow students and hobbyists flexibility without the frustration of other robotics kits. Also, there are dozens of online communities for LEGO Mindstorms enthusiasts. People share plans and programs for their creations, making learning more collaborative.

Maybe we will have Rosie the robot in my lifetime. If so, it is possible that a child growing up with Lego Mindstorms will be the adult who finally brings household robots to reality.

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