Ask any maker what the hottest subjects are in DIY electronics these days, and odds are the first answer will be Arduino. Since the earliest boards were built in 2005 to enable students to run interactive design projects with open-source tools, the platform has become a world-wide phenomenon, igniting the imaginations of makers, hackers, and artists all over. Simply speaking, Arduino is huge in the maker and MAKE communities. Here’s a great interview Dale Dougherty conducted with Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi from MAKE Vol. 32.
Today we are thrilled to announce Massimo will be writing a monthly column for MAKE, which we’re calling “MAKE the Future with Arduino.” On the first Tuesday of each month, Massimo will share his unique perspective on the Arduino platform, including insight on the development of the boards, new products, and exciting projects for Arduino fans to share and adapt. Indeed, today’s first column is a preview of an exciting new Arduino product that will be unveiled to the world at Maker Faire Bay Area this week—the Arduino Robot.
So, please join us in welcoming Massimo to MAKE!
–Ken Denmead, MAKE Editorial Director
Massimo: After two years of hard work, experimentation, testing, and ups and downs, I’m happy to announce that our robot is ready. The Arduino Robot will be alive with us for the first time during Maker Faire Bay Area where I will show you its features and you’ll be able to experience what its capabilities are. But for us it’s not only a matter of launching a new product. It’s more important to share with you a story of how a passion for tinkering is helping us explore new, unexpected roads. That’s why I asked David Cuartielles, co-founder of Arduino and the member of our team who has spent more time and sweat on it, to reveal how it all happened because I’m sure you will enjoy it.
In the Beginning, I Hated Robots
David: Between 2009 and 2011 I ran an education project at the Computer Clubhouse Faro de Orient in Mexico City commissioned by the Centro Cultural de España (the Spanish Cultural Center). My role was to bring the craft of electronics to the Computer Clubhouse with kids 6-18 years old. At the beginning I ran a series of workshops on how to build musical instruments repurposing components we found at the local flea market.
Once the kids started to be familiar with electronics and programming I asked them what their dream project would be. In the workshop there were both boys and girls, about 25 in total, and independent from their age and gender everybody wanted to make…robots.
To be totally honest, robots are not my specialty, or they weren’t back then. I was never really interested in things that moved and performed tasks for me. I thought there were other more interesting fields within electronics than robotics, but I knew I had to follow the kids’ dreams at the Clubhouse. It soon became my mission to design an easy-to-replicate robot that could be made with parts existing in Mexico City.
I enlisted Xun Yang in this project, at the time a master’s student in interaction design at my laboratory at K3, the School of Arts and Communication at Malmo University. Together we designed a robot that could be easily etched and manufactured by hand. But not only that, we created a whole series of activities for the kids to learn robotics the fun way, from moving the robot, to getting it to write text on the floor using a marker. We then made the design open source and Arduino compatible.
From Formula 1 to Educational Robots
I documented our work on my research blog and got an almost immediate response from the robotics community. It’s interesting for me now to read my diary notes and notice how my opinion about robots was slowly evolving. I started to understand that educational robotics could be a great entry for kids into science. We got a lot of good feedback about what people thought was great in our project and what we could do better. The robotics community is a lively one and people are very willing to share their knowledge.
I conducted a lot research and bought every book I could find. One of my favorites is Almost Human: Making Robots Think by Lee Gutkind. Reading his book I learned a lot of the background of contemporary robotics. It helped me understand what’s most important in the field. One of the stories in the book that caught my interest was the origin of the RoboCup competition as a way to put people’s intellect to the challenge of creating the best possible software to solve tasks. The creators of the RoboCup went for three different challenges for their world championships:
- Soccer: It’s a game with equal rules for everybody. It’s easy to understand: Robots use different techniques to follow a ball and score goals.
- Rescue: An activity where the competing teams have to solve a maze-like quest while gathering parts.
- Dance: Yes, robots can dance.
One of the many interesting experiences we ran into while working on our project involved a Spanish team called Complubot composed of two kids: Nerea and Iván. Together with their coach, Eduardo, they had been competing–and winning–the Soccer B category at the World Series of the RoboCup Junior (for high school students).
In a way, the RoboCup is like the Formula 1 of robotics. Every year the organization sets a series of rules that make things a little more complex than the previous competition. The teams work throughout the year to make a faster, lighter, and better robot with artificial intelligence (AI). A fascinating rule from the RoboCup is that before entering the competition, each team has to explain its strategy to the other teams to show they made the hardware and software designs by themselves. There is nothing as open source as having to unveil your whole collection of tricks before joining the competition. This is not only about being good technically, but also about being good at explaining how the magic happens. Can you imagine a 12 year-old girl explaining to you how she, together with her team, built a robot with distributed intelligence by using up to four Arduino Minis and one Arduino Mega? Believe me when I say it’s a pretty amazing experience.
The Pros Knocked on The Door
When we first met, Nerea and Iván had already won three RoboCup competitions and were on their way to the fourth. We spoke for a while during one of my visits in Madrid and it became clear to me that we had to do something together. They were used to robots using multiple processors that cost as much as $4,000 in parts. Arduino tries to make things as affordable as possible so that people can get access to educational tools, therefore my goal became designing a robot that could fit Complubot’s needs at Arduino’s prices.
I pitched the idea to the rest of the Arduino team and we started working on the Arduino Robot. The project’s code name was Lottie Lemon, named after one of the characters on the Muppet Show. I drew the first board that we mounted by hand early 2011 and we started a long process of iterating designs. Once we had proof of concept, Arduino’s hardware guru, Gianluca Martino, took over so that I could focus back on the software.
During the following year we witnessed a lot of modifications. Everytime we managed to solve a bug we found, we came up with a new idea for a feature that could make the robot a little better without compromising the price. The control board went through seven iterations, while the motor board changed nine times. We made seven different versions of the operating system until we figured out a way we thought would give people the best introduction to robotics. At the end of the process, we recruited Xun back to the team and made him responsible for bringing to life a set of challenges people could undertake to start exploring the world of robotics and have fun learning about the fundamental operations of the robot just like the kids who inspired us at the beginning of this story.
Watch the Arduino Robot perform some enhanced line following:
Massimo: In the last three years David moved from knowing nothing about robots to becoming an amateur roboticist with a strong interest in educational robotics. The Arduino Robot is the result of the collective effort from an international team looking at learning science fun. Arduino is now on wheels. Come and ride with us!