E D U B O T S
SHAPING THE FUTURE OF ROBOTICS
Budget Prototyping, ServoCity And The Actobotics Nomad, by Miles Crabill
In previous EduBots, I’ve written about rapid prototyping in an academic setting and about tools that make it easy to learn electronics fundamentals. Legos and LittleBits are both excellent platforms for prototyping and experimenting. Yet, sometimes budget might necessitate inexpensive options. The advantage of these building systems is that they are extremely convenient time savers and they’re easy to assemble. With experience and the right tools, it can be cost effective to buy equipment kits or purchase individual parts in bulk, which allows more brand interface and flexibility.
Using kits and off-the-shelf components, and following guides and online manuals can save you hundreds of dollars without sacrificing speed of prototyping. Inexperience can be a hurdle, and a knowledge of soldering, basic electronics components, and a set of tools can go a long way, but the advantage is flexibility. When you’re working with off-the-shelf components you can reuse tools between projects, whether that means breathing new life into your Arduino boards or shaving corners into pieces of metal because it looks cool, without worrying about two bricks not quite connecting anymore. You don’t have to special order from a particular brand in order to give your prototype a new capability; you can reuse existing components or walk into your local hardware or electronics store and come out with your wallet intact.
I recently had the opportunity to build and work with ServoCity’s revolutionary Actobotics precision building system, a ball bearing-based system with a unique overlapping hole pattern that allows virtually unlimited mounting capabilities. Along with the Nomad kit, a durable roving robot that is simple and very rugged can be built very quickly.
The Nomad doesn’t look like it messes around, and it’s purpose-designed for handling difficult terrain with ease. The Nomad kit emphasizes the DIY spirit, coming unassembled, with each of the parts divided into plastic bags: exactly how I would want it. The Nomad can be built in a few hours, after which you have an assembled aluminum chassis complete with motors, tires, and plenty of room for add-ons, electronics, and more. It features four beefy 12v DC motors that each powers a heavy-duty tire clocking in at 2.25 inches wide and 5.4 inches in diameter. The completed chassis, without additional electronics, clocks in just under six and a half pounds. The Nomad is built for expansion, with an aluminum body that has ample mounting locations for just about anything that can be screwed or tied in.
ServoCity makes no assumptions about the electronics that a hobbyist or tinkerer might want to use in conjunction with the Nomad, and although they do recommend their Roboclaw 2x30A Motor Controller, you’re free to control your motors however you like. I found it freeing not to be confined to one brand or toolset. It’s wise to get a motor controller, but beyond that if you have a Raspberry Pi or Intel Edison, or random Arduino lying around waiting for a use, look no further than using it to drive your Nomad. You use the compartments in its chassis (with holes on the sides for cable routing!) to protect your sensitive boards and components. This kind of customization makes prototyping on top of the Nomad easy. Once the electronics are installed, you’re just a software upload away from controlling the Nomad’s movements algorithmically and can easily use ultrasonic rangefinders, LiDAR, or flex sensors to feed information about the Nomad’s whereabouts to your programs. The only limit to an expandable, extensible kit like the Nomad is your imagination and your stash of parts.
Prototyping can be expensive, but if you’re buying purpose-assembled bare bones kits or off-the-shelf components, you skim your costs to the minimum. Getting to the point where you can assemble your own kits, integrate electronics, and more as part of the prototyping process can be hard, but you’ll be taking your prototyping one step closer to the finished product on the way.
There are still many applications for tools such as LittleBits and Legos, but it’s worth keeping a knowledge of the big guns up your sleeves, even if you’re not an engineer. Knowing how to solder, knowing the difference between TX and RX, and knowing how to analyze a circuit are all life skills that aren’t going out of style any time soon. Prototyping on a budget can be important, and having the skills to execute regardless of the tools you have available is essential.
Lewis & Clark College, www.lclark.edu