This post is part of a series on the best controllers for DIY electronics.
Robots are a special case, since — unlike most smart home mods and wearable devices — they can be tiny or huge, and can involve many complex moving parts and sensors. As such, they demand brainpower and lots of input/output pins.
The Arduino Pro Mini is a perennial favorite for drones: it’s small and light, and comes in 3v3 and 5V versions, so it plays well with many components. It does require an FTDI cable for programming, so isn’t the most convenient for beginners and hackathons — but still a classic for semi-permanent builds.
The Arduino Mega gives you more processing power and a tremendous number of general-purpose input/output (GPIO) pins: good for controlling LOTS of servos!
Still not enough power for you? BeagleBone boards are the brains in many beefier ‘bots (such as the OpenROV R/C submersible); the new BeagleBone Green Wireless is a collaboration that brings together WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, four USB ports, Seeed Grove connectors, and a bajillion I/O pins. (The pins give it a leg up vs. the Pi, plus BeagleBones are generally faster.) It runs a server, as well as the Node-RED graphical programming interface. Here are our interview and demos around its release.
On the software side, look up ROS — the open-source Robot Operating System, largely developed at Stanford and Willow Garage. The idea is to make the best new control systems available and accessible to everyone — friendly for the newbie, powerful for the tinkerer. There’s a graphical programming interface, too!
The most popular DIY robotics projects
- 🚁 Obviously, drones are getting big. (And small!) To be honest, if you’re planning to build a tiny drone, you’re probably too experienced for this guide. They require exceptional balance of battery power, propeller oomph, and weight. Bigger ones tend to incorporate ZigBee communication, though some are using WiFi to talk with the controller, such as the 3DRobotics Solo. Check out DIYDrones and the Pi0drone. From delivering tacos to filming documentaries and cleaning solar panels, there’s a huge potential for good.
- 🏃 Humanoids, robot arms, prosthetics, walking robots. These can be pretty expensive to build; you’ll need lots and lots of servos, and something that can handle them. The open-source, 3D-printable InMoov relies on an Arduino Mega to control the left arm and head, plus an Uno to get the right arm working. It’s the go-to for all kinds of partial and full humanoid projects. For heavy-duty builds, Dynamixel servos are the general favorite. Walking robots tend to be six-legged (hexapods), but there’s also a growing community around Theo Jansen’s biological Strandbeest walkers, including printable parts on Thingiverse.
- 🚃 Wheeled robots. Google “SumoBot” for a huge variety of simple kits and tutorials. These are usually small, two-wheeled robots that try to push each other off a platform, and they can . There are open plans for all kinds of controllers, which don’t need to be very beefy — even a battery and a pair of DC motors will do, though you probably want something a bit more controllable. :) Line-following robots are another popular starter wheelie project.
- ♿ Assistive robots. These can take many different forms, but I recommend checking out Willow Garage’s PR2, which is designed to interact with humans. They produced a robot with features such as counterweighted limbs, which cannot exert enough pressure on a human to do significant damage, even if it malfunctions. The limitations you place on your robot may be just as important as its capabilities.
- ⚡ Power suits, exoskeletons. Take a peek at the soft-robotics work being done at Otherlab. These assemblies can be extremely powerful, but also light, fairly comfortable, and collapsible. I got to try on one of their arms, and promptly punched myself in the face (thanks to Saul at the controls). Best day ever. Soft robotics is a great field for “fuzzy” robotics where you don’t want to rely on precise controls.