Simple Bots are a series of robot tutorials posted online with the intent of making robotics accessible to all.
Randy Sarafan - Designer / Creator / Hacker / Human
A nice simple way to introduce robotics concepts to the rank beginner. Extremely creative reuse of household materials, and a full explanation so parents and kids can build these bots together. Great potential as an educational tool.
1. Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the challenge posed to you? Did it get you excited and why?
This project started when a friend of mine expressed that he was interested in learning robotics, but did not know where to begin. My initial thought was that I could easily build a robot in ten minutes out of readily available parts and use this as a way to get my friend started.
This first experiment not only proved successful, but turned out to be far more personally rewarding than I thought it would be. I immediately began making more. As per usual, I then posted them online with full open source instructions.
As I continued posting them, I received feedback from robotics novices who were not only building robots for the first time, but modifying my designs to suit their needs. The subsequent user-created bots are without a doubt the most exciting part of this project.
2. What point of view did you bring to the challenge? Was there anything additional that you wanted to achieve with this project or bring to this project that was not part of the original brief?
In the past few years I've created and shared hundreds of open source design projects online and through print media. I felt like this one in particular was a culmination of what I have learned to date.
When I set out, I wanted to create what I felt was the perfect series of open source DIY projects. It needed to be compelling, accessible, clearly written, visually narrative, aesthetically pleasing, and most importantly, fun. I strive to inject fun into everything I make. If I can't convey the sense of fun I have building and interacting with these projects, it will be nearly impossible to convince anyone else to take on the challenge. I cannot even begin to emphasize the value of making an open source project fun.
3. When designing this project, whose interests did you consider? (Discuss various stakeholders, audiences, retailing, manufacturing, assembly, distribution, etc., for example.)
While an older acquaintance inspired the initial idea of making these bots, I wanted to make the bots simple enough that a reasonably competent teenager could feasibly follow the directions and complete them.
This was motivated by a hellish summer spent teaching robotics to teenagers. Looking back, I failed at the time to make a single project that was quick, easy, compelling, and accessible. Teenagers are a hard group to please and there are certain accessibility considerations involved in designing for them that translates well across age groups.
For instance, teenagers don't have credit cards and all of the parts and materials need to be readily accessible in local stores. Teenagers typically don't have access or permission to use power tools, so these bots need to be made almost exclusively with common hand tools (I did use a power drill). Teenagers get bored easily, so it was important that each bot could be easily completed in an afternoon and have an immediate payoff.
Ultimately, I figured that if I could please the average teenager with these projects, then I could please just about anyone with no robotic experience.
4. Describe the rigor that informed your design. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) If this was a strictly research or strategy project, please provide more detail here.
Every day on my long commute, I would look out the bus window and observe how different people, animals, and machines moved. I would then sketch out different bots that I felt could replicate the movement or personality attribute of what I had observed. From there, I would go to the local hardware store and walk up and down the aisles, handling the different parts, until I had located parts of the appropriate shape and materials to match my sketch.
With these supplies I rapidly built an initial prototype and observed to see if it worked as expected. If it did, then great! I would build and document the final version for online. If it did not work, before I abandoned it, I would spend some time to observe and interact with it to see what went wrong and if it had any redeeming value in its own right. Any design that could be saved on account of a happy accident would be, as there is currently no wrong way for a robot to move.
5. What is the social value of your design? (Gladdening, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, labor-mindful, environmental, cultural, etc.) How does it earn its keep in the world?
Simple Bots were created to enable anyone with the inclination to get started in basic robotics and mechanical engineering. My goal was to make the bots simple enough that anyone within reason could understand them, locate the parts and reproduce them. In this way, Simple Bots could serve as a stepping stone into more complicated engineering projects as it introduces many of the fundamentals in a simple hands-on way.
With the increasing cultural dialogue about giving children a more solid understanding of science and engineering, the need for quality introductory material is increasingly valuable. It is one thing to talk about teaching science and engineering to children and another thing entirely to teach it to them. Unfortunately, most parents don't have a background in science and engineering and most of the learning material about it is difficult and convoluted. The nice thing about Simple Bots is that it makes it easy enough for both the parents and the children to easily follow and learn in a hands-on manner.
6. If you could have done one thing differently with the project, what would you have changed?
I feel that I have accomplished my goals in the construction, documentation and dissemination of this project. The only thing I would have done differently is to have added a power switch to each robot. Pulling a battery out of a moving robot to turn it off is occasionally non-trivial.