Sunday, February 25, 2007

Robotics Technology Has Been Advancing Faster Than Ever Lately.

I've been interested in robots ever since I was a little boy, as were many boys that grew up in my era.

I had a few robotic toys as a child too and I would always tear them apart to see if I could learn anything.

Most of them were "cheap" and weren't very impressive. The coolest thing they had back in the 70's when I was really young was "rock 'em sock 'em robots. Yes they were kinda cheap and had no motors but the linkage set up for the controllers amazed me. It was just string routed up through the robots limbs and the limbs had springs that returned them back to their default position. I still think it is an ingenious idea.

Anyways, not much happened in the field of robotics as far as I was concerned growing up.

Then I got into the work force and started welding. It was in the welding shop that I learned about modern robotics and the way it works on the production line. It is pretty impressive but I was still disappointed at how primitive the whole thing is.

Productions robots are completely stupid. The programmer determines all the moves of the robots. You have to tell the robot precisely where to move and what to do every step of the way which takes hours of programming and trial and error. They are just stepper motors which are programmed and controlled by computers every step of the way. Hardly any sensors, no smart capabilities like the ability to detect misaligned parts or anything.

I was truly disappointed in the progress of robotics in the last 20 years after what I had learned.
Then in 1997 I learned about Mark Tilden and his new BEAM Robotics philosophy and I finally saw a glimmer of hope for the advancement of robotics.

BEAM robotics started with a solar cell, a couple of transistors, a resistor, a diode, and a very efficient little motor. In laymans terms this setup basically resembles the function of a neuron or a basic biological nerve. Which means that BEAM robotics kind of copies nature in a way.

It's amazing. If you can do research on the intenet, have any sort of electronics experience and can solder, you can build your own BEAM robots and circuits. If you're good enough at electronics you can even combine the many different circuits related to BEAM to build your own customized biomorphic robot.

For example: you can connect a solar cell to a nerve circuit and it will send pulses that turn a motor. The cool part is that the intesity of the light source determines the amount of power sent to the motor. If you build 2 circuits like this and connect the motors together just right you can create a robot runs on light and instinctively moves towards the brightest light source to "feed". So 2 neurons gives your robot the feeding instinct.

There are many different "instincts" and "reactions" you can give your robot without the need for a computer program. You can add touch sensors to it for obstacle avoidance for less than 2 dollars. And for less than 10 dollars you can give it infrared eyes so it can avoid obstacles before it touches them.

If your really crafty you can put all your cool circuitry on a clever mechanical body that is solar powered, walks on 4 legs, navigates rough terrain by "sensing" ground conditions through motor feedback, seeks out light sources for power, avoids large obstacles via infrared, avoids loud noises, avoids water, avoids static electricity etc... (use your imagination)

All of this is done with discreet electronics components combined with the blatant mis-use of some Digital Logic IC's. -- They used to need a whole computer just to make a robot walk!

It all boils down to this: You can connect any "sensor" or "sensor array" circuitry to your robots neural network circuits and cause it to react in any way you choose. You can even connect a computer to the neural network and make it monitor, process, analyze, transmit, interrupt, or modify sensory input. You can even put radios on them so they can talk to other robots.

Learn more about BEAM robotics here:

No comments: