Agorobots - What to do next

The tools you need

Robotics is a very cheap hobby if you know how to do it right - we just used wire strippers, cutters, and pliers, all of which you are likely to have at home already. You'll probably also want to get a soldering iron, so you can make permanent connections. The only expensive tool we used was the PICSTART PIC programmer, which costs around $200, because it is designed for professional use. If you use a slightly more expensive/complicated microcontroller (the PIC16F84 instead of the PIC16F627), you can get by with any of a number of inexpensive programmers: However, I am not aware of any cheap programmers for the chips that would work for the chips we used. The cheapest I could find is the The Warp-13 PIC Programmer, for about $100, but I haven't really heard much about it.

Buying more parts for your robot

The motors and wheels came from Pololu, my robot company. You can order more Tamiya parts there, along with some other robot kits and components. I got most of the electronics (the PICs, breadboards, battery packs, etc) from Jameco, though there are a lot of good electronics catalogs on the web: Digi-key is the most popular, used by both hobbyists and large electronics manufacturers. Peter Anderson is a very nice guy who sells thousands of components to hobbyists without trying to make a profit - I got the LEDs and a necessary upgrade for my PIC programmer from him. Texas Instruments gives out small samples of our 754410 motor driver chips for free if you fill out a request on their website.

Check out small companies like Acroname and Lynxmotion for interesting robot-related kits. All Electronics has a lot of interesting components, and surplus companies like Herbach & Rademan or American Science & Surplus are fun to browse.

Programming the PIC

The technical datasheet on the PICs that we used is the best reference for learning how the chip works and how to program it. It's surprisingly easy to read for a technical manual, and you can get a free printed copy by sending a request to Microchip. There are also lots of books about the PIC - check the reviews on Amazon and you will surely be able to find something helpful.

Forming a club?

If you guys want to keep this up, it would be to your advantage to start an official club at Uni. It takes time to build robots, and a regular meeting time (e.g. some day every week after school for an hour or two) would help keep you on track. If you set something like this up, let me know, and I'd be happy to come by once in a while to give you advice, debug programs, lend you the PIC programmer, or whatever you need.

Eventually, the club could invest in some things to make it easier for you to do robotics; you could buy your own programmer, tools, and components. Also, as you know, Uni has been spending a lot of money on technological improvements recently. I don't know exactly how it would work, but if you have a serious club, I bet you could convince the school to help pay for some of those supplies. Mr. Smith and Mr. Carrubba are probably good people to talk to about this.

Thanks for taking my class! I hope you all had a great time and learned something. Robotics and electronics are really tough to get into if you don't know where to start. I can tell you (from personal experience) that a lot of MIT electrical engineering grads have trouble getting started with robots. But now that you've had a little introduction, you are really not too far behind them. Let me how it goes!