Gordon McComb, who’s been dubbed “the father of hobby robotics,” has been building robots since the 1970s, and wrote the best-selling Robot Builders Bonanza (the new 4th edition is available). For MAKE Volume 27 Gordon wrote a how-to article called Teleclaw: Remote Robot Gripper, which is controlled with an ordinary TV remote.
Tell us a bit about yourself — where you live, what you do for a living, what you are interested in?
I come from San Diego, California, best known for its climate, but it’s also a great place if you’re a robot builder. That’s thanks to the US Navy, and all the military surplus it generates. Cheap parts for projects are never far away.
When I’m not building, I’m usually busy writing about something. It might be a book — I’ve done over 60 so far, and new things keeps coming out that I want to write about. I did a 13-year stint as a weekly newspaper columnist, all about computers. I’ve written all kinds of articles for magazines like Popular Science, and I’m jazzed about doing builder projects, like the Teleclaw, for MAKE.
I also do technology consulting, though none of it is about robots. My eclectic specialties are document automation, professional film making, and video. For example, a few years ago, I worked on numerous projects for Technicolor, including some early development in the area of digital facial capture for animated movies and video games. I’ve written software from the ground up to create subtitles for foreign language movies, and I was active in creating subtitling standards for high definition DVD.
Above: Gordon’s ArdBot, designed as an expandable project robot to teach fundamentals using an Arduino development board for robotics.
How did you become interested in robotics?
I think it was because I wanted to be a mad scientist. Many of the movies of the 1950s and 60s that I grew up with had evil or scary robots, built and unleashed by some deranged professor. These guys always had great laboratories located somewhere at the outskirts of town, unlimited resources for cool equipment, and at least one pretty lab assistant. I didn’t want my robots to hurt anyone, of course, maybe just terrorize a few bullies.
By the late 60s, I started tinkering with simple motorized gadgets using old parts I’d find in my stepfather’s junk bin, or I’d spend my allowance money getting goodies from mail order places like Fair Radio or Edmund Scientific. My first attempt was a Kronos robot, from the movie of the same name. It didn’t work very well, and it fell apart in minutes, but it was a start.
The computer craze of the 1980s had everyone saying robotics would be the next breakthrough. The breakthrough didn’t happen, but that didn’t bother me. Robotics has always been a path to learning and inspiring. In 1985, I took the ideas and experience of my first real custom robots and wrote a book, Robot Builder’s Bonanza, published a few years later. That book is now in its fourth edition, which came out last May.
Why do you like making robots?
I like the process. It’s not unlike a model builder, who might spend 100 hours crafting a perfect replica of some vintage WWII airplane, only to put the thing on a shelf when it’s done. That doesn’t mean my robots end up on display or in the closet. In fact, most of the parts for my bots are recycled for the next generation. I like reusing things.
As part of the process, I enjoy getting other people interested in robot building — I call it infectious enthusiasm. I like it when they take an idea and run with it, doing things no one else has thought of. That’s the greatest reward I can imagine.
Tell us something about the Teleclaw robot (above) you made for MAKE?
The Teleclaw I designed for MAKE grew out of a small kit I used to sell on my hobby website, Budget Robotics. It’s just a small plastic woodworking clamp attached to a radio controlled servo to make the clamp open and close.
For the MAKE project, I added a $3 PICAXE and an infrared receiver module that’s tuned to receive commands from any ordinary TV remote control. Press buttons and across the room the claw opens and closes. The PICAXE is a terrific little microcontroller that comes with built-in support for decoding the Sony format of remote control signals.
A complete parts kit for the Teleclaw is in Maker Shed, and includes a preprogrammed PICAXE, remote control, and even the batteries.
Above: Gordon’s Tunebot is operated by music: wave your hand over the infrared piano keyboard on the top of the tunebot to control its behavior, which includes finding things to “kiss” with its trio of touch-sensitive sensors.
What kind of robot do you dream of making?
The dream robots of my youth were fanciful and completely unworkable. Ray gun and atomic pile stuff, like Iron Giant. Today I like to think about robots that provide motivation for the person building it. Maybe it’s a little bot that senses changes in the weather, and as it explores, a room it plays MIDI tunes that have been composed by its creator. Or it might be a completely autonomous flying blimp that looks for people and greets them in some annoying — yet entertaining — way.
Whenever there’s a robot that teaches a new skill, adds to a person’s experience, or explores a fresh approach to an old problem, that’s the quality of inspiration. Robots that have inspired their builder always have a “so what does it do?” reason for existence.
Can you tell us about one of your favorite tools?
Without a doubt it’s my CNC router. I use it to turn CAD files into finished cut pieces. It greatly reduces the time it takes to make and perfect the panels, mounts, and other parts of the typical robot.
My CNC isn’t very large — the biggest piece it can cut is about a foot square. But that also means it doesn’t take up a lot of space.
CNC cutting is a messy process, though. I use it primarily to cut expanded PVC plastic sheets, which when milled produces lots of dust. Even with a vacuum system I get covered with tiny plastic bits whenever I work on the machine. I leave a trail of colorful red, blue, and black dust throughout the house!
From the Pages of MAKE
MAKE Volume 27, Robots! The robots have returned! MAKE Volume 27 features a special package with robotics projects for every age and skill level. They play music; they outwit your pets; they learn from their mistakes! In addition, we’ll show you how to build a special aquarium to keep jellyfish, create pre-Edison incandescent lighting, spy via the internet, and make a go-anywhere digital message board! All this and much, much more, in MAKE Volume 27.