There’s a brief period in everyone’s lifetime when the idea of inventing something becomes a soaring ambition. It could be reshaping a wire coat hanger into a monster, building a den in a garden, or using cleaning liquids to make a volcano. Thankfully, these dangerous pastimes become forgotten in favour of more peaceful activities.
But some people never lose than yearning to invent. They watch the Mars Curiosity Exploration Rover and wonder how to build a toy version. Others ponder how to fix a reliable alarm on a domestic appliance like a thermostat on a boiler or a burglar alarm. And there is always that silly idea of giving a relative with a sense of humour a flashing sweater.
All about robotics
The key is to learn about robotics. The children’s toy market is full of simple, prefabricated robotics kits but those are not the same as building your own version. The robot, whether it’s composed of flashing lights on a sweater or garden wall, or a moving truck on the floor, can shift around, change colour or make a noise on a command from a standard remote control.
The heart of this is the Arduino microcontroller. This is essentially a computer on a chip that connects software to physical functions such as that movement or alarm. It works like glue and can control any version of a DIY project. (http://dlnmh9ip6v2uc.cloudfront.net/learn/materials/9/IntroArduinoBook.pdf) The beauty of it is that no-one needs to be an expert programmer or a geek spending all waking hours in from of a computer screen.
Arduino was invented by an Italian engineer, Massimo Banzi, and his team who wanted to finds a way of putting computer-based robotics within reach of non technical people, be they artists, designers, or even electronics amateurs. They could use it to make their own work respond to sounds, lights or any other stimulus. It can even make thirsty houseplants tweet their owner for watering.
Banzi and his team defined the Arduino as ‘an open-source microcontroller platform’ that creates interactive electronic devices. The ‘open source’ means that the hardware and software are available to everyone. The hardware is the microcomputer board while the software is the Arduino IDE (Integrated Development Environment), a standard used to connect hard drives in computers that can run on any PC, Linux or Macs. The aim is to take an input from any sensor or switch and make a decision on how to control an output such as a noise, message or light.
Newcomers to electronics and robotics should start with the DuinoKit available from any UK Arduino distributor. It contains all of the necessary components for a large number of projects and also specifies all the parts necessary as well ads providing easy to follow diagrams and explanations.
The starter kit alone offers a magical experience for budding electronic engineers. You can:
• Construct a security device with a digital combination
• Build a light and motion detection system
• Build an automatic camera remote control, and lots of other inventions
The starter kit has all the parts already soldered on to circuit boards. Once the basics are mastered, it’s time to learn how to solder and build your own circuit boards.