4 Excellent DIY Robots You Can Make
August 16, 2016      

As I wrote about in this article about the most popular robotics platforms for makers, automation has now become cheap enough that you don’t need the backing of a corporation to start experimenting. For less than $50, much less in some cases, you can have a board that can control actuators, take physical inputs, and communicate via WiFi or serial signals.

Now you don’t have to wait for a certain robot to be developed by someone else, you can simply make one yourself. Granted, if you want a walking beast that can carry you inside, you still may need some financial backing, but at least the electronics likely won’t be what’s holding you back.

Check out these robots built by people who decided not to wait and build the robot they wanted themselves.

VR Robot Tank

Building a robotic tank (or similar device using wheels) seems to be a staple of DIY automation, but few have made one as well as this “Raspberry Pi VR Robot Tank.” The robot is controlled by two Raspberry Pi boards, one controls the motors, while each streams video from a separate camera.

The tank’s cameras are spaced a few inches from each other, which means that when streamed in two separate windows to a smartphone, the driver can see everything in 3D. Or, as the operator in the video puts it, “everything looks really big. I feel like my body is inside the ground.”

Is that wasn’t cool enough, the creator of this robot wrote an Android app to stream accelerometer data from the phone to the camera’s servo mount. This means that it can pan and tilt along with the person’s head it’s attached to, making the realism that much better.

Raspberry Pi Image Processing

As excellent as the VR Tank is, one could argue that it’s more of a telepresence device than a robot, since a human has to drive it. One autonomous robotics application is line following. Much of the time, it’s done by some sort of basic sensor that can detect the line’s color, but for his 2014 RoboCup Junior build, creator Arne Baeyens decided to instead process a video stream using the on-board Raspberry Pi. As Baeyen’s puts it in the video below, his “Robotanis,” robot may not have been the fastest, “but it was something new.”

Looking back, it took 90 seconds for an advanced vision system to read the number “6” in the early 1980s. The fact that something like a Raspberry Pi, available for less than $50, can not only process video, but make robotic driving decisions in real-time is truly staggering.

Self-Balancing Robot

As an engineering student, I remember being especially impressed with a project called an “inverted pendulum,” where a weight on an axis was held up by a dynamically-controlled motor. Taking this several steps further, you can now build a robot that holds itself up on two wheels (like a hoverboard) and drive around. Instructions for one version are posted on the Make: website.

If you’re thinking about building one, do consider that the project is ranked as “very-difficult.” You’ll also need access to a 3D printer and around $400-$500 in parts. Though not easy, you’ll at least have something unique to patrol the neighborhood with.

Modified WALL-E Toy

If you saw the 2008 movie WALL-E, there’s a good chance you wanted to have a robot toy after viewing it. Toys in the little robot’s likeness were available, but this wasn’t good enough for programmer and general hardware hacker Matt Brailsford. He stripped the internals of one of these toys and used a Spark Core Wi-Fi development board to bring new functionality, including smartphone control, to this little tracked rover.

As neat as his build is, what’s perhaps even more interesting is that nearly any toy has the potential to be modified into something even better. Does your child have a toy that you think should have a different set of things to say, or perhaps shut off sooner? You can now make that happen with the multitude of Maker-level computing boards now on the market.

Other Options

Of course, there are many variations on what kind of DIY robotics can be pursued. For example, smaller hexapod robots or other types of walkers are popular, and one that I made was featured in my list of maker robotics platforms. Your imagination (and to some degree budget) is really the only limit. If you find the idea of making your own robot fascinating, there’s no reason not to order one of those boards, and start experimenting. Perhaps a rideable hexapod is in your future!

I would love to get that fortune cookie.