How to Make a Robot: the Ultimate Beginner’s Guide (2017 Edition)

There’s no better time to learn how to make a robot than now.  There are tons of exciting technologies out there today that will allow you to create robots that can do almost anything.

But here’s the problem.  Most robotics project guides are way more complicated than they need to be.  That’s why I decided to write this guide.

I’m not trying to show off how much I know.  I want to show you how to make a robot the easy way and for cheap.  Why?  Because I want to you to go forth and create cool stuff!

If you like the For Dummies series of instructional books as much as I do, you’ll probably enjoy this guide.  Unlike many robot guides that you’ll find online, this one is written in plain English.

Cheating on the quiz is not authorized.

By the time you’re finished absorbing the info contained in this guide, you’ll be on the road to becoming a robotics expert.

When you reach the end of this page, be sure to take the quiz at the end to test your knowledge.   

I won’t tell you what you’ll get if you answer all 10 questions correctly because…. I don’t want to ruin the big surprise.

Pro tip!  Think you already know how to make a robot? Go ahead and take the quiz right now then, hot shot.

Contents

Why should you listen to me?

In 2016, I decided to put my DIY expertise and bargain hunting skills to good use and start this site.

Best Quadcopter Under 50 Dollars: alex munkachyAs a former ramen noodle eating college student, I have a lot of experience finding cheap but good DIY electronics gear online.

The reviews you’ll find on Robot Fanatics are blunt and to-the-point.  My main goal is to help you look for information and find the best bargains.

Enter your email address into the bar on the bottom of the screen and I’ll send you the info when I find good deals on robot stuff.

Ok!  Let’s Learn How to Make a Robot

Assembling a robot is not nearly as complicated as you might think.  In fact, almost every week a new technology comes out that makes it even easier to learn how to build a robot.  There’s a vast array of extremely cheap or free tools, kits and materials that you can use to help you figure out the basics.

Even if you have zero experience building robots, if you follow the advice listed below you’ll come away with a solid understanding of everything you need to do to make your robot project a success.

Why Build a Robot?

You’ll have fun learning how to make a robot, but getting the basic knowledge does takes a bit of effort.  So, why bother?

  1.  Robots make you smart.  Electronics.  Programming.  Voltage fundamentals.  Problem solving.  You’ll learn all kinds of skills as you learn how to make a robot.  What other hobbies allow you to learn so much about so many diverse topics?
  2. Robots are simply awesome.  I think the main reason people build robots boils down to one simple fact: robots are just plain interesting.  It’s fascinating to watch a machine sense and adapt to the environment that it perceives.
  3. Robots are useful.  Another reason to build a robot is that robot technology has developed to the point where it is now possible to build a robot for your home that can help you manage everyday tasks.  Want to build a “nanny bot” that will allow you to monitor and communicate with your kids while you’re out on a date with your wife?  No problem.  What about a talking robot that will check your email and read it to you when you get a new message?  That’s doable, too.

The guy in the video below has developed a robot that automatically locks the door when you open up an “incognito” web browser tab.  The so-called “Incognito Lock” robot allows you to make sure that your wife doesn’t walk in on you when you’re… ermm… uh…. picking out a birthday gift for her on eBay.

What Is a Robot, Anyway?

Technically, any machine that performs tasks automatically can be called a robot.  But in my opinion, simple robot machines that can only do one or two things are a bit boring.

“Smart” robots are more interesting because they can:

  • move around
  • sense the environment
  • understand computer code

It takes some time to learn how to program and interact with a smart robot.  But, the extra effort is worth it.  Intelligent robots are a lot of fun.

Will You Build Your Robot Piece by Piece… or Get a Kit?

If you’ve never assembled an electronic device before, you should definitely buy a robot kit.  All the components in a robot kit go together.  So, there’s no chance you’re going to have voltage compatibility problems or other issues.

Pro Tip!  If you’re going to buy a kit, the best one out there is littleBits.  I found out about littleBits recently, and I have to say– it is an amazing, game changing, incredible system for building electronic devices.  Read my full review of littleBits here.

macgyver-robot

I can’t overstate how awesome littleBits is.  However, if you know a thing or two about electronics, there are benefits to piecing together your own robot kit.  The main upside to going the hardcore DIY route is that it’s cheaper.  Another good thing about not getting a kit is that you can get exactly what you want.  You don’t have to pay for extra stuff you’ll never use.

A lot of the stuff that you’ll find in the average starter robot kit is nice to have– but unnecessary for building basic robot projects.  Once you have two or three basic components, that’s all you really all you need to start experimenting.

Some people build DIY robots out of styrofoam or popsicle sticks.  In my opinion, MacGyver style robots made out of everyday objects are definitely cool.  But if you want a durable robot that won’t break or fall apart, you should invest in some good quality robot parts or a kit.

Pro tip!  Interested in buying an all-in-one robot design kit?   If so, check out these comparison reviews.

How to Make a Robo Step 1: Build Your Robotics Toolkit

The first thing you should do if you want to build a robot is gather all the tools you need to piece one together.  You really don’t need a huge toolkit to start.  Most likely, you’ll probably have many of the tools listed below already.

Essential

  • 1 small screwdriver set.  The screws that you’ll be dealing with are small compared to normal hardware screws.  So you’ll definitely need a set of speciality electronics screwdrivers.
  • 1 regular screwdriver set. Normal sized screwdrivers will come in handy when you start assembling your robot’s body.
  • 1 pair of needlenose pliers.  Pliers are very useful when handling tiny electronic parts.
  • 1 pair of wire strippers.  After you start assembling circuits, you’re going to need a good pair of wire strippers.  It’s possible to strip a wire with a normal knife.  But you’ll save yourself a lot of time if you just get a nice, inexpensive pair of wire strippers.

Optional

  • 1 soldering toolkit.  You don’t need a soldering iron to make a robot.  But if you put together a prototype circuit that you’re really happy with you may just want to solder it together.

How to Make a Robot Step 2: How to Choose a Microcontroller For Your Robot

Before we start building a robot, we have to pick out a brain for it.

When I first got into robot building, I was surprised to find that most robot brains are actually pretty inexpensive.  You can buy a super advanced robot brain for less than $50.  The cheapest ones are about the same price as a combo meal at McDonalds.

What Is a Microcontroller?

If you want to build robots, you should learn some basic lingo.  If you walk up to an experienced robot builder and say:

“Hey, what’s the best type of robot brain?”

They’ll probably look at you funny, maybe raise an eyebrow and say:

“Ummm.  You mean, what’s the best type of microcontroller?”

electronicbrainThe microcontroller is the technical term used to describe the brain of a robot.  A microcontroller contains everything a robot needs to “think.”

All microcontrollers have built-in ROM (Read Only Memory) chips.  ROM chips contain read only code that you can’t easily edit or change.

When you program your robot, it temporarily stores the code that you’ve given it in its RAM (Random Access Memory) chip.

When you save a program it gets stored to your robot’s flash memory banks.  A microprocessor’s flash memory system functions just like a hard drive.  Once a program is saved to flash memory, your robot can remember it later on.

Another thing you should know about microcontrollers is that they all have input/output (aka I/O) ports.  These allow the microcontroller to interface with your computer as well as with the other parts of your robot.

Microcontrollers vs. Microprocessors: What’s the Difference?

If you know a thing or two about computers, then you are probably already familiar with the term “microprocessor.”

The most important part of a microprocessor is the small, square chip called a CPU.  The CPU handles the most important mathematical calculations.

In order for a microprocessor to work, you need to connect to other stuff to it: a hard drive, RAM sticks, etc.

Microprocessors can’t manage or store data without outside help.  But microcontrollers can.  A microcontroller contains all the components that you’d find inside of an average computer.

The Best Microcontroller Brand: Arduino

arduinologo

Arduino dominates amateur robotics microcontrollers in the same way that Heinz reigns over the ketchup industry.

In the world of hobby robotics, Arduino microcontrollers rule.  There are other brands out there, but Arduino is the most popular one by far.  That’s why this guide focuses exclusively on how to make Arduino robots.

Why is Arduino So Popular?

Currently, only robotics fans and tech hobbyists know about Arduino.  But some “in the know” thinkers believe that Arduino will soon become “Italy’s Google.”  Arduino fans are very loyal to the brand.  Here are 4 reasons why robotics fans love Arduino:

  1. arduinobirthdaycake
    An Arduino themed birthday cake

    Open source OS.  One big reason for Arduino’s success and popularity is its totally free, open source operating system: Arduino IDE.

  2. Arduino stuff is cheap.  Thanks to the fact that Arduino hardware is also open source, Arduino microcontrollers are super duper inexpensive.  Any manufacturer can produce an Arduino.  As a result, even the most top-of-the-line Arduino board costs less than a video game.
  3. Arduino’s charismatic “techno-hippie” founders.  Arduino was founded by ordinary people who have a passion for technology.  Its executives aren’t businessmen or engineers– they’re artists, designers and teachers.
  4. The friendly, enthusiastic Arduino community.  Before Arduino, the hobby robotics community was small and a bit closed-off.  Arduino changed all that.  Arduino fans like to help each other solve problems.  They interact via message boards and get together in real life to make stuff.

Which Arduino Microcontroller Should I Get?

Arduino Mega 2560 R3
Arduino Mega 2560 R3

My personal favorite Arduino microcontroller is the Arduino Mega 2560. It’s big, fast and has lots of RAM and storage space.

The vast majority of hobby robot bloggers say that the Arduino Uno is the best microcontroller for beginners.  But I disagree.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Uno is a perfectly good microcontroller for basic electronics projects.  But if you want to eventually build a large, advanced robot that can do a lot of cool things, why not just start out with the biggest and baddest microcontroller in the entire Arduino catalogue?

For just a few extra bucks, you get so much more.  The Arduino Mega 2560 has got 8 times as much flash memory and 4 times as much RAM and ROM as the Arduino Uno.  If you’re serious about becoming a robotics hobbyist, get the Mega 2560.  You’ll thank yourself later.

miniPro Tip!  Want to make a swarm of tiny, dirt cheap yet clever robots?  If so, check out the Arduino Pro Mini.

The Pro Mini is one of the cheapest robot brains you’ll find.  And, at 7″ x 1.3″ it’s also very small– the perfect size for creating robotic cockroaches and spiders.

The downside to the Pro Mini is that it is not as powerful as other Arduino microcontrollers.  It only has:

  • 14 I/O pins,
  • 2 KB of RAM,
  • 1 KB of ROM
  • 32 KB of flash memory.

But if all you want to do is learn how to make a small robot creepy crawler, you won’t need much more power than that.

Authentic vs. Clone Arduino Microcontrollers

501_Fake-arduino
An Arduino clone
501-real-or-fake-arduino
A real Arduino board

Like I mentioned above, everything Arduino is completely open source.  That means that any manufacturer in the world can start making Arduino stuff.  So how do you know if you’ve got a “real” Arduino product made by an authorized manufacturer– and not a cheap imitation?

It’s not always easy to tell a real Arduino board from a fake one.  But generally…

  • Real Arduino microcontrollers are teal or blue-green.  Fake ones are usually deep blue.
  • The “501 K’ component (located next to the voltage regulator) on a real board is gold.  On fake Arduinos, it’s usually green.

You can read more about how to spot a fake on the Arduino blog.

Some Arduino clones are actually quite good.  However, others miss the mark.  If you want to support Arduino, you should buy Arduino products either through the Arduino website or through an authorized seller.

How to Make a Robot Step 3: Motor Controllers: Your Robot’s Muscles

Once you’ve decided on which Arduino microcontroller you want to use for a brain, you can start to think about picking out a motor.   If a microcontroller is your robot’s brain, then its motors are its muscles.

What is a Servo?

There are many different types of motor controllers you can choose from when making a robot.  But most robot motors are servos.  Servos are smart, accurate motors that don’t consume much power.

Every servo has three wires.

  • the power wire
  • the ground wire
  • and the control input wire

Servos are much precise compared to other types of motors.  Inside each servo is a specialized integrated circuit (IC) that can read voltage pulse information.  The IC turns the servo in certain directions depending on what kind of voltage pulses it receives via the control input wire.

If the IC receives a long voltage pulse, it the motor turns as far as it can.  But if the IC receives a very short voltage pulse, the motor turns back to its original position.  If the length of the pulse is somewhere in between the maximum and minimum values, the motor adjusts itself accordingly.

A second thing the integrated circuit on the servo does is sense feedback.  A servo is always checking to see what position its motor is in.  The servo’s self-monitoring capability allows for more exact movements.

When the motor isn’t moving at all, the IC stops sending power to the motor.  That’s why servos are very energy efficient.

To give you an idea of how servos work in real life, let’s say your servo powered robot hits a wall.  Instantly, the servo senses that its motor has stopped.  So, the servo stops spinning its gears and sends a signal back to your robot’s brain to let it know what has happened.  If you programmed your robot to respond to this situation, it’ll try to look for another way forward.

Check out the video below to see a servo powered walking robot in action.

 

Pro tip!  If you’re looking for a solid all-around servo, check out HiTec’s 31311S HS-311.

It’s an 180 degree servo that has a nice amount of torque.  One particularly nice thing about this sturdy little servo is that the package a nice array of useful accessories that rookie robotics hobbyists will find useful.  It comes with mounting pads, screws and a set of plastic servo arms.  

What Is a Step Motor?

Step motors are DC motors are driven by magnets.  Depending on how the magnets are charged, the motor will either step forward, step backwards or spin around in a circle.

Step motor are stronger than servo motors.  But, they’re also dumber.  Step motors don’t have ICs.  So there’s no feedback system monitoring the motor’s position.  If a step motor gets stuck… it’ll keep trying to spin.

The reason why step motors are stronger than servos is because they are not bogged down by electronic monitoring circuits.  Steppers just spin around freely, without a care in the world.

If you use step motors to build your robot, it’ll be strong– but clumsy.  The Arduino robot builder in the video below made a robot using nothing but step motors and programmed it to follow a rectangular path.

Because the robot has no sensors and there is no circuit to keep the robot’s motors on point, the robot’s path will change over time. Eventually, it will just fall off the coffee table.

If you’re interested in experiment with stepper motors, Robotlinking’s 5 pack stepper motor kit.

Even though stepper motors aren’t as accurate as servos, the good thing about them is that they are cheap.  If you do something wrong and burn one out, it’s not a big deal.

These steppers in particular are cool because they have LED lights that indicate how hard they are working.

How to Make a Robot Step 4:  Building Your Robot’s Body

Now that your robot has a brain and some muscles, you’re ready to flesh out the rest of its body.  Let’s start with the breadboard.

Pro Tip!  Follow the link to learn how to make a robot that has touch sensitive pizza “skin.”  

What Is a Breadboard?

A breadboard is type of circuit board that allows you to build circuits without having to permanently soldering everything together using a soldering iron.  The wires used to make connections on a breadboard are called jumper wires.  Metal clips hidden beneath a breadboard’s plastic surface hold the ends of the jumper wires in place and connect them to each other.

solidstrandedPro tip! Almost all breadboards come with a pack of jumper wires.  But you’ll tend to go through those pretty fast if you’re making a lot of circuits.  If you want to save money in the long run, you should make your own jumper wires.  All you need is 22 gauge solid core wire and a wire stripper.  Just cut a section of wire and strip off the tips.

Stranded wires tend to break off pretty easily.  So go with solid core if you plan on making your own jumper wires.  I recommend Elenco’s Solid Hook-Up Wire Kit.  Elenco wires well insulated and easy to strip.  

Breadboards come in many different shapes and sizes.  They can have as many as several thousand connection points– or as few as 2.  The connection points in the inner columns of a breadboard connect horizontally.  But the two rows connection points on the sides– the voltage connection points– are connected vertically.

Here’s a picture of two breadboards in action.

breadboardaction

When buying chips and components for your robot, look for ones that are breadboard friendly.  Breadboard friendly components fit easily into standard breadboards.  You don’t have to bend or modify breadboard friendly components to fit them into the breadboard holes.

Pro tip!  Elegoo’s awesome EL-CK-002 Electronic Fun Kit Bundle is a steal.  For about the price of a normal no-frills breadboard, you get an entire breadboard kit that comes with a whopping 235 additional items.

Along with a 400 point breadboard, this bundle comes with a potentiometer, a power supply, 65 jumper wires, a handful of LED lights, resistors and all kinds of other useful stuff.  Check out my full review of this product here.

Types of Robot Wheels

Flying robots and walking robots are tricky to setup and program.  So, most beginners start out with rolling robots.

There are several different types of popular robot wheels.

  • Omnidirectional robot wheels are good front wheels because they can move in any direction.  The Swedish wheel is very interesting kind of omni wheel that is equipped with little rollers that allow your robot to move side to side as well as backwards and forwards.
  • Standard wheels are good for support.  They can’t twist around, but they’re very stable.  Both the front and rear wheels of matchbox style toy cars have standard wheels that are locked in position.
  • Orientable wheels look a little bit like airplane landing gear.  Most robotics hobbyists use orientable wheels for balance.  Orientable wheels that can swivel around in any direction are called off centered orientable wheels.  Centered orientable wheels are locked in place and can’t move.  Off centered orientable wheels are useful sometimes, but they can get in the way– especially if your robot gets lifted off the ground.  If that happens, its off centered wheels will start spinning around in random directions.
  • Tracked wheels (aka treaded wheels) are ideal for heavy robots or wheeled robots that you intend to use outside.  Tracks have great traction, which is why they handle dusty, rough terrain better than most wheel types.
  • Ball wheels (aka castor ball wheels) work well on the flat, rubber surfaces that you’d find in a robot lab.  However, ball wheels are horrible at handling real world surfaces.

 

Pro tip!  If you’re looking for a nice yet cheap basic robot wheel set, check out the INSMA Motor Smart Robot Car Chassis Kit.  It comes with a pair of standard wheels and an orientable swivel wheel.  Plus, you get two gear motors– one for each wheel.  If you program your Arduino to control each motor independently, you can have your robot steer around in different directions.

How to Make a Robot Step 5: Choosing Your Robot’s Sensors

Just about every human sense has an equivalent robotic sensor.  A booze swilling robot created by a team of researchers from University of Valladolid in Spain in 2015 can even taste beer!

Some types of robot sensors– like ultrasonic sensors that emit high pitch frequencies that the human ear can’t pick up — allow your robot to sense the world in ways that that you and I can’t.

The list below contains just a few of the coolest and most useful sensors types for Arduino robots.

 

Pro tip!  When adding sensors to your robot, don’t try to install all the sensors at once.  Install one sensor, test it and make sure it works.  Then, start thinking about ways to install the next one.
  • Ultrasonic sensors.  Believe it or not, Arduino robots are capable of performing echolocation.  You can equip your robot to have bat-like abilities if you hook up an ultrasonic sensor.  Surprisingly, ultrasonic sensors are actually quite cheap. Parallax’s PING Ultrasonic Distance Sensor is very reasonably priced.  Check out the video below to see it in action.

  • IR obstacle avoidance sensors.  Obstacle avoidance sensors send out a beam of infrared light that scans around in front of your robot.  When an object moves in front of the beam, a signal is sent back to your robot’s microcontroller to alert it that a collision is imminent.
  • Microphone modules.  Microphone modules typically come in two flavors: high and low sensitivity.  If you want your robot to respond to claps, all you need is a low sensitivity microphone module.  But if you want to do things like record audio or respond to speech, you should use a high sensitivity microphone module.
  • Camera modules.  If you want to give your robot eyes, get a camera module– or maybe two of them if you want your robot to do more advanced stuff like read faces and navigate obstacles.   Some cameras are kind of expensive.  But a company called Arducam makes a great low price camera module that’s compatible with Arduino.  Arducam can take still images, record real time video, transmit images through a WiFi or Bluetooth… and it even performs color and object recognition.  Check out my full review here.
  • Range sensors.  Range sensors tell your robot exactly how far away it is from a distant object.  The range information is transmitted back to the microcontroller in the form of voltage pulses.

 

Pro Tip!  Unless you have a specific idea about what you want your robot to do, you might consider buying a sensor bundle kit.  A sensor bundle kit allows you to experiment with several different types of sensors.  Some of the sensors included in this kit are a bit weird (the kit includes flame sensor, for example) but you do also get more than a few good ones that come in handy when making robots.

Some sensor kits that are produced in abroad don’t come with instructions and some don’t even have labels.  But SunFounder’s  37 piece sensor kit comes with a nice blue plastic box and a guide that helps explain how to use each sensor. 

How to Make a Robot Step 6:  Buttons and Switches

If you don’t install a kill switch, what’s to stop your robot from destroying you?

When shopping for buttons, knobs and switches, you should buy breadboard friendly components.  Breadboard friendly buttons are easy to install.   Just plug them down over the gap in the center of your breadboard, like so:

robotbutton

Most robot kits come with a slew of different levers and knobs experiment with.  Here are the most popular types.

  • Push button switches.  The most common button you’ll find on a robot is the push button switch.  Push button switches make a nice click noise when you push down on them.
  • Toggle switches.  This is the type of switch that you probably imagine of when you think of a robotic kill switch.  It clicks up and down and makes a satisfying little noise when locked in place.switches
  • Slide switches.  Every time you turn the lights off before you go to bed at night, you use a slide switch.  With a slide switch, you can connect or disconnect a circuit in one single motion.  Simple, yet effective.
  • DIP switches.  DIP switches allow you to connect and disconnect various jump wires on your breadboard without physically moving them.
  • Latching switches.  Have you ever used a guitar effects pedal?  If so, then you’re already familiar with latching switches.  When you press a latching switch button, it locks down.  When you press it again, it pops back up.
  • Rotary switches.  Rotary switches allow you to select one out of a range of different positions.  This type of switch is useful for when you want to crank your robot’s speed all the way up to 11.

Step 7: Choosing Your Robot’s Power Source

Understanding how your robot handles current and voltage may be the most complicated part of learning how to make a robot.  Still, it’s absolutely crucial that you understand how electricity works before you start assembling your components.  If you supply your robot with too much electricity, you’ll fry your components.  Even too little electricity can cause damage.

What’s the Difference Between Current and Voltage?

electricityWater and electricity actually have a whole lot in common.  That’s why I think that the best way to understand how  current and voltage flow through your robot is to perform the following thought experiment.

Let’s imagine that each wire in your robot contains a tiny river.  If you were to shrink yourself down and climb inside the wire leading to a robot’s microprocessor, you would see a stream of water moving toward your robot’s brain.

sake-robot
This Japanese “drinking buddy” robot probably runs on sake.

If you stick your hand in the river to see how fast the water is moving, you’d be measuring its current.  Current is measured in amps, or in this case milliamps (mA).  But if you were to measure the width and depth of the river to see how much water is rushing toward the microcontroller, you’d be measuring its voltage.  Conveniently, voltage is measured in volts.

Your robot needs the right amount of voltage and current to stay healthy.  If you put too much or too little current or voltage into your robot’s microcontroller… the result will be brain damage.

Now that you know how important it is to get the right amount of electricity moving in the right direction, let’s take a look at two of the most popular ways to power a robot.

Robot Power Source Option 1: Batteries

The best thing about batteries is that they are very portable.  A battery powered robot can move around wherever it wants to go.

But here’s the problem with batteries: they don’t always put out the same amount of electricity.  A brand new 9V battery may actually put out as much as 11 volts of electricity.  But as the battery begins to wears out, the river of electricity flowing out of it will begin to dry up.  By the time it’s almost dead, your battery will be putting out only 6 or 7 volts.  So much voltage fluctuation can damage your robot’s components.  That’s why if you’re using batteries to power your robot, you need a regulator to control the flow of electricity coming out of the battery pack.

There are two main types of voltage regulators to choose from: voltage regulators and switching regulators.

What’s the Difference Between a Voltage Regulator and a Switching Regulator?

  • Voltage regulators work well with low voltage components.  In situations where you don’t need a lot of electricity, a normal voltage regulator will work just fine.  Regular voltage regulators are quite simple.  All they do is limit the amount of electricity flowing into a component.  If voltage exceeds the regulator’s limit, it gets burned off in the form of heat energy.  You can get away with using a voltage regulator to control the amount of juice flowing from your battery into your Arduino.
  • Switching regulators are a better choice for high voltage components.  Let’s say you want to regulate the amount of electricity going into your robot’s servo motors.  Most robotic motors require lots of current and voltage.  If you use a normal voltage regulator, it’ll get really hot and you’ll waste a lot of battery power.  If you want the batteries powering your servos to last longer, use a switching regulator instead of a voltage regulator.  Switching regulators are far more efficient than voltage regulators.

Robot Power Source Option 2: Wired Power

Batteries are nice because they are portable.  But because the voltage you get from a battery pack fluctuates, batteries are a little bit hard to deal with.  That’s why a lot of robot makers power their Arduino robots brains via the Arduino’s USB port or or via its Japan jack.

How to Power Your Microcontroller

When it comes to powering up an Arduino microcontroller, most boards have 4 options.

inputs

batterypackjapanjack1. Japan jack.  The Japan jack has several safety features that keep Arduino board safe from electrical disturbances. It can accept anywhere from a minimum of 7 up to 12 volts.

  • Batteries. Many battery packs come with jacks that are compatible with the Arduino’s Japan jack.
  • Chargers.  Many wall chargers designed for use with smartphones are compatible with the Japan jack.

2. USB port.  If there’s a computer nearby, you can power (and possibly control) your robot’s brain with an extra long USB cable.  A USB will provide the Arduino with a steady stream of stabilized power.  The USB port is also very safe to use.

  • Computers.  Just plug in directly to a computer and the Arduino will siphon off all the power it needs to operate.
  • Chargers.  You can also power the Arduino with any type of USB wall charger.
  • Battery packs.  Most rechargeable USB battery packs are a bit bulky.  On the other hand, they do last forever because they tend to have large capacities.

3. The Vin (+6 – 12V) socket.  The Arduino’s Vin socket lacks some of the protective mechanisms that the USB port and the Japan jack has.  So, it’s a little bit risky to power your Arduino using the Vin socket.  That’s why most people just the Vin socket to transfer power to other small, low powered components.

Screenshot 2016-07-21 00.34.08
Powering a small LED light via the Vin socket.

4. The +5V socket.  If you have a stabilized, regulated 5V power source but no USB jack, you can feed power to the Arduino through the 5V socket.  So long as you have a good quality switching regulator controlling the flow, it’s safe connect your battery pack to the +5V socket.

Watch out!  Electrical equipment is very sensitive.  The wrong setup can harm your robot.  So, be careful.

How to Power Robotic Motors

It is possible to run power through an Arduino microcontroller and into a motor.  But if you do that, you run the risk of damaging both your Arduino and your motor.  The Arduino uses 5V.  Most motors require around 12V.  So, if you run 12v through the Arduino, you’ll quickly cause its voltage regulator to overheat.

Screenshot 2016-07-21 06.07.41
An Arduino motor shield

You can easily solve your robot’s brain/motor voltage compatibility problem with a motor shield. A motor shield has its own power lines.  So if you install a motor shield, you won’t have to rely on the motorcontroller for electricity.

Another great thing about motor shields is that they often contain useful integrated circuits that reduce the amount of wiring and coding that you have to do to get your robot rolling.  Also, many motor shields have useful lights that indicate which way the motor is spinning and buttons that allow you to take manual control of the motor in case you want to test it out.

Yet another reason to get a motor shield is that it can help protect your robot’s other components.  If there’s a voltage problem, the motor shield will take the damage– not your microcontroller.

When wiring up your servos, be sure to take steps to guard against the effects of electrical noise.  When a motor spins around, it occasionally lets off a spark.  Sparks can generate harmful voltage spikes that can damage your robot.

The best way to guard against electrical noise is to install capacitors.  Capacitors can absorb the voltage spikes produced by sparks.  Most motor controllers have built-in capacitors.  But if your motors start doing strange things, you may need to install additional capacitors across the terminals of your motors.

How to Make a Robot Step 8: Take Control of Your Robot

Ideally, you want your robot to think and make decisions all by itself.  But before you start programming your bot to do cool stuff on its own, you should test it out by ordering it around yourself.  There are several ways to interface with your robot.

Hook It Up to Your Computer

tetheredarduinorobot

Pros:

  • Simple setup.  This method is by far the easiest way to interface with your robot.
  • You don’t have to worry about draining your microcontroller’s batteries.
  • No special modules are required.

Cons:

  • Limited distance.  With your robot on a leash, it’s limited in its ability to explore the environment.
  • If someone trips over its wire, your robot may sustain a mortal wound.

Connect It To the Internet

Pros:

  • No matter where you are in the world, if you have internet access you can control to your robot.
  • You can program your robot to upload data to the cloud.

Cons:

  • Programming and setup can get complex.
  • You have to buy a WiFi module.

Control It With an IR Remotearduinoremotecontrol

Pros:

  • IR receivers are cheap.  They come with most robot sensor kits.
  • Ordinary TV remotes can be used as controllers.

Cons:

  • Objects in the way will block the signal.
  • Only basic instructions can be sent through IR.

bluetooth-arduinoPair It With a Bluetooth Controller

Pros:

  • So many different electronics devices (smartphones, laptops, etc) are Bluetooth compatible.
  • Bluetooth is more portable than WiFi because you can set up a Bluetooth network anywhere.

Cons:

  • Range is limited compared to WiFi.
  • The pairing process can be difficult.

Direct It with Radio Frequency (RF) Waves

Pros:

  • Very long range (up to several kilometers) is possible.
  • Set up is relatively easy compared to other interface methods.

Cons:

  • Only very simple commands are possible.
  • If someone else is using an RF device (R/C cars, etc.) in the area, their signals might cause interference.

How to Make a Robot Step 9: Boost Your Robot’s IQ

This step is the most challenging one– but it’s also the most rewarding.  In order to create an intelligent robot, you’re going to have to learn a thing or two about computer programming.  Specifically, you’ll have to learn how to find your way around Arduino’s open source programming platform– Arduino IDE.

Robo lingo!  Arduino IDE programs are called sketches.

Arduino IDE is completely free.  However, it’s unfortunately quite difficult to learn compared to most other programming languages.  Arduino IDE is written in Java.  Java is a notoriously fickle and user unfriendly computer language.  Fortunately, there are tons of ways to make Arduino IDE programming easier.

codebender-chrome-compatiblity

Codebender

When it comes to sharing and creating Arduino code, there’s no better place to go than Codebender.  Codebender is a completely free browser based tool that allows Arduino fans to create, share and even test Arduino code.  There are tons of group projects to work on, plus lots of useful sketches you can easily download and use.  Once you’ve got your code downloaded, all you need to do is push a button to transmit it straight into your robot.  The Codebender site has a very cool interactive demo that shows you how it all works.  Check that out here.

Of course, copying and pasting code from Codebender will only get you so far.  Eventually you’ll need to learn how to write your own code– or else all your Arduino buddies are going to think that you’re a scrub.  The good news is that there are several programs out there that simplify the Arduino IDE code creation process.

Ardublock

Probably the best visual Arduino IDE add-on out there right now is Ardublock.  Like Arduino IDE, Ardublock is completely free.  Instead of writing out line after line of code, Ardublock allows you to assemble your robot’s instructions with colorful Lego-like bricks.  Ardublock is built on top of Arduino IDE.  So if your computer can run Arduino IDE, it can also run Ardublock.  Check out the screenshot below to get a taste of what Ardublock looks like.

adrublock-example

With the two tools listed below, you can trial and error to teach yourself how to create killer Arduino code.  The best part of using the two tools above is that you don’t need to have much programming experience to use them.  I recommend that you just jump into it and start playing around with different sketches.  When you run into problems, just find a good forum and ask for help.

Okay, so now that you’ve made it to the end of this page you’re almost ready to graduate from the prestigious makearobot.info university.  All that’s left now is the big final exam.

Need to study up?  Check out my comparison review of 4 Popular Robot Design Books.

How to Make a Robot Step 10: Take the Quiz!

Robotics Quiz

Think you've got what it takes to assemble a robot? Take the quiz and see if you know the basics.

About Alex Munkachy

Hello and thanks for visiting Robot Fanatics! The aim of this site is to introduce people to the fun and interesting world of robotics. Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @RobotFanatics.