Mobile Robotics Research, Part 3: Support Future Research!

Cyrus Tabrizi, 5/10/14
Author's Note: This article is the last installment of a three-part series. For further background, check out The Intro and The Robot, or email me! If you've already read "The Intro," this article will provide further details regarding my plans to support future research!

      For the past year, I've been working on a smart 3D–printed drivetrain design that will allow robots to do more around the house and out. Since I'm graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School this June, I'll have to leave all my work behind for future students there. To continue the work I've completed over the past year and create a finished and refined robot that people can use and develop upon, I will need to raise the funds needed to start from scratch again. For now, I am doing this through strategic partnerships and donations (both monetary and in the form of tools and resources).

Let's pretend I was being interviewed:

What are you doing?
      I'm developing an affordable and effective multipurpose robot that people can use in their homes and in the outdoors.

How will it work?
      The main part of the robot is its intelligent and highly–capable drivetrain—it allows the robot to go up stairs and take it places and achieve maneuvers not capable by most similarly–sized robots. On top of that drivetrain is a platform for the attachment of different onboard modules. These modules are each tailored to a specific application and extend special abilities to the robot.
      I will also be working on a base or "home" for the robot that will provide automatic recharging and loading/unloading of onboard modules.

How are you planning to reach that goal?
      I love working with people so right now I am accepting donations of any kind and am looking to partner with any party interested in sponsoring my work!

Why do you do what you do?
      I've been building and designing mechanisms all my life (I'm currently 18) and love seeing technology change our lives for the better. For me, creating new things and engineering new solutions is not just a passion—it's a way of living.
      Robotics itself is a particularly exciting type of engineering. For me, I enjoy it because it combines my interest in mechanical design with electronics and programming to create something that can physically interact with the world and come to life! Even if it's built from Lego bricks, a robot is a robot (albeit we often fail to fulfill the "intelligence" part of the "robot" definition in our creations) and it's interesting to explore all the possibilities that combining automation with mobile hardware present.

What is your particular interest in this application of robotics?
      Besides it being a great challenge to tackle from an engineering perspective (I get to put a lot of my skills to use), this application of robotics is also one that has great utility for myself and the general public. Unlike robots that are only found on the assembly line hauling around chunks of metal and welding, the robot I am developing can be used in a variety of applications and will be nice to have around the house—that's something I find pretty interesting and worth the effort and time.

Why should I (an ordinary person or possible customer) fund or otherwise–sponsor this?
      Do you have a lawn to cut? Leaves to rake? Stairs or multiple floors to clean and don't want to have a fleet of Roombas? If you answered yes to any of those questions, funding this research is the way for you to start answering NO and to start living a better life (yes, this robot should eventually be able to do all those things and more).

Exploded Tread Assembly New 10

Why should I (a corporate entity) fund or otherwise–sponsor this?
      My robot will hopefully end up in the hands of many, but my idea and work will definitely reach a lot of people before it does. If you're interested in having your product or device be a part of that (e.g. "the XYZ robot is powered by an ABC microcontroller from EFG company" or "the components on XYZ robot were printed using EFG's 3D printers") or just like what I am doing and are willing to donate parts for me to develop my robot around, then we need to talk! If you're interested instead in having exclusive advertising space on, the robot itself, and/or on my Youtube channel (search Crtlego) in exchange for support, then there is also the opportunity to do that. Email me if you're interested in negotiating anything.

Why should I (an educational institution) fund or otherwise–sponsor this?
      Besides being really useful, my robot will also be a great platform for educational purposes and getting kids into STEM. As my robot will continue to be largely 3D–printed and use commonplace electronics and hardware, it is not only something that can be built by students in the classroom, but also be built upon—they can improve it and find new applications for it too.

What are you doing with the money?
      Since I'll have to start from scratch when I graduate in June (I have to leave all my work behind), I'll need my own tools/machinery, materials, and parts to continue developing the robot (and hopefully build several versions of it in the process). Specifically, I am in need of:

  • Equipment
    • Two desktop 3D printers ($3,000–4,000 total, specific models not yet determined).
      • As explained elsewhere, desktop 3D printing is at the core of my work. For my work to proceed as I am planning for it to then*, I need not one 3D printer, but two of them (*I would be working day in and day out on this like I have done with my previous work and am currently doing with this project). Having experienced the difficulties of giving hundreds of students access to a limited number of 3D printers, I know firsthand that the technology has not yet been perfected. Every now and then, a glitch will come along and your printer will be offline until you fix it. When you have two printers at your disposal, you can not only use them simultaneously to dramatically speed up R&D, but you can also use the second as a backup for the first in the case that something starts acting up. In short, it is a significant cost to purchase two printers, but it greatly increases the wiggle room I have with conducting my research. Given the great cost, it is unlikely I would purchase two high–end models—instead, I would purchase one in the $1,500–$3000 range and a smaller one too ($300–$1000).
  • Tools
    • Set of files
      • When running a 3D printing operation, having the right set of files available to give parts their proper shape is very important.
    • Adjustable–temperature Soldering Iron ($20 to $100)
      • Doing extensive soldering like I've done with this robot is nearly impossible with a soldering iron that is not variable–temperature. Things just get too hot too quickly.
  • Materials/Parts
    • PLA spools for the 3D printers (around $500 over the next two years)
      • Depending on the printers I get, I may need a separate filament supply for each one (though ideally that would not be the case). I may also end up with bad filament or experiment with materials like ABS and Nylon when not using PLA.
    • Several dozen high–performance, high–torque DC motors and continuous servos; and their mounting hardware (cost to be determined)
      • Currently, I am using VEX DC motors in a form factor similar to that of a hobby servo to provide my robot with actuation. While my plans are currently revolving around the continued use of VEX DC motors, funding would allow me to purchase more conventional and powerful brands of motors. With several degrees of freedom on each tread, multiple treads on each robot, and hopefully several robots coming our way, the number of motors I will have to purchase is significant.
    • High–torque and precision limited–rotation servos. (cost to be determined)
      • Using these servos in certain joints would be more effective than the approach I am currently using which utilizes an external rotary encoder with limited accuracy.
    • Motor controllers to drive each DC motor (cost to be determined)
      • DC motors need to be controlled and a low–current signal from a microcontroller isn't able to do it by itself. A motor controller takes that signal and runs is through additional circuitry to provide the power to turn that signal into an observable action. With more powerful motors, these controllers need to be bigger and get more expensive. Currently, the motors I use run using $10 controllers, but part of my research would involve exploring the use of more powerful motors and more powerful controller as well.
    • Mounting hardware for motors (if necessary) (cost to be determined)
    • Sensors for temperature, carbon dioxide, sound, light, IR, touch, proximity (ultrasonic) and orientation (IMU or individual accelerometer, compass, gyro + rotary encoders) ($500–$1,000)
      • Sensors are a critical component for a robot to interact with its environment safely and effectively. Many of these are an integral part of the base platform's operation, but some are also important to the operation of specific onboard modules, like units for raking leaves, cleaning floors, and collecting trash etc.
    • Primary microcontroller/miniature computer (examples include BeagleBone Black, Raspberry Pi, Arduino Mega) ($250–500)
      • Microcontrollers are the brains that will allow this project to have actual utility in the real world. They interpret sensor data and send the commands needed to put things into motion.
      • To keep with the open–vibe of this project, I will try to develop the robot with different popular microcontrollers in mind. While I may decide one unit in particular is optimal and limit extensive development to that one unit only, the robot will be designed such that it could be developed further for use with others too.
      • Required features:
        • Lots of GPIO pins
        • Support for camera input and image processing
    • Lithium–polymer batteries and chargers (cost to be determined)
      • Something has to power the robot right?
      • Ideally, the power aspects of the robot would be developed for operation at several hours at a time, but the creation of an automatic charging station will alleviate short battery life problems. Speaking of which...
    • Wireless induction charging station (or the circuitry needed for me to make one of my own) (cost to be determined)
    • Hardware (nuts, bolts, stand–offs etc.) (cost to be determined)
      • These are used in combination with 3D printing to create features that are robust and long–lasting.

       That's the list so far! It's not an exact science, but given all the work that I have already put into my research and my project work in the past (you can explore my website to see some more of my projects), I feel pretty confident about both what I will need and my ability to maintain and use the parts and equipment I will be able to purchase with the funding. Extra funding will be used to build additional robots!