Some time last summer I got the bug to build a robot. I wanted to get my oldest daughter, age 11, involved, too. Lots of things about robots appeal to me. They are very much the nexus for a lot of cool, current and emerging technology:
- There’s mechanical engineering – The robot exists in the physical world and needs to be able to make my coffee, mow my lawn, scrub the toilets, etc. That’s all those axles and wheels, hydraulics, and grabbers.
- There’s programming – that’s right-a robot is really some sort of a computer with hands or another sort of “actuator” to get the job done. That means telling the machine just how to accomplish those things, and how to learn a few things on its own, too. That’s C or Java, or some other computer language and some pretty clever coding to let the robot learn and remember what it’s learned.
- That would be artificial intelligence, that is, the robot learning or teaching itself how or when to do things. It wouldn’t be too useful to have the robot going into the bathroom to clean it up when we’re entertaining the boss and his family, and the boss’s wife is using it just when the robot enters to start tidying up.
- There’s electronics – making all those connections and switching those switches and sensing the world and making sure my robot is strong enough to tighten the lug nuts on the wheels to my car but sensitive enough to gently crack an egg without dropping in bits of shell or breaking the yolk to make my perfect breakfast.
- There’s design – making a robot that we all can relate to, but can still get the job done with out a lot of cutey-pie limitations built in.
- There’s math – calculating distances from point a to point b.
Soon after the bug bit, I was over in the main building and dropped into one of the offices to talk to a friend. On her desk was a stack of brochures for BadgerBotics Summer Camp at one of the local high schools. The two week camp was open to various age groups and they would learn robot basics using Lego Mindstorms NXT robots. I talked to my daughter about this and she was all go. But then, on a closer look, I saw that the timing of the camp wouldn’t work with all the other things we had.
About the same time, I was telling my friend, Alberto, about my newfound disease. Alberto teaches Electrical Engineering Technologies at MATC where we work. He dragged me into his classroom and showed me all the LEGO robots that they used in class to teach machine control. They would replace the LEGO brains with bigger ones and program in C. Then he told me he had ordered a kit for himself and his son, a brilliant little fellow of 7 or 8. He assured me that we would love it. So I’m finally getting started.
I began with checking books out from the local library that are on a mixture of kid’s and young adult reading level for myself and my daughter. They were all OK, but a few were better than others. As my daughter and I progress through these, I’ll be talking about some of the better books and our experiences along the way.