If you’re not satisfied with buying a robot or customizing one, building one from scratch is a great option. Though obviously more difficult, it can be extremely rewarding to see your creation come to life, and there are many cost-effective options for powering them.
When I made my first robot (see below), I used a BASIC Stamp 2 by Parallax, which cost about $100 at the time. I was extremely proud of the finished product, but the cost of one of these was a barrier to entry for someone in college. Similar boards can now be had for around $10, and you can find even cheaper options if you do a little more research.
Here are a few development boards to consider when building your new contraption. This is nowhere near a complete list of what’s available for DIY robot development, it’s more like a drop in a bucket. For other ideas, this list of platforms from hackster.io is a great resource to find what’s out there.
As of now, Arduino boards are perhaps the most used DIY robotics platforms on the market. The majority of them feature an Atmel/Microchip processor running at a clock speed in the “low two-figures” Megahertz range.
Though slow by traditional computing standards, these boards communicate primarily by taking physical inputs from switches and sensors, then respond by sending a signal to an output such as a light servomotor or via a serial output.
Here’s a six-legged hexapod robot I built using a BASIC Stamp 2 processor and a servo controller.
Though the low price is good, what really makes Arduino boards special is the community that surrounds it. If you want to make something interesting with it, there’s a good chance someone else has done something very similar.
In many cases, you don’t even have to solder most components on and can take advantage of “shields” that plug into the board’s IO pins and provide new capabilities. For an extreme integrated example, here’s an interesting idea called Evive that combines many accessories into one system.
Arduino boards come in many different flavors. The standard seems to be the “Uno,” but there are other interesting choices, including the Mega 2560 that provides expanded IO capabilities or the MKR1000 that has built-in WiFi.
If Arduino is the top platform, Raspberry Pi is a strong second. The original version of this board was released in 2012, and it’s much more powerful than an Arduino. In fact, the Raspberry Pi 3, which can display images via a built-in HDMI port and runs Linux at 1.2 Gigahertz, is more akin to an actual computer than a microcontroller. People have used these boards as audio streaming devices or even as the heart of old-school video gaming cabinets.
What makes the ‘Pi (and its smaller form factor ‘Pi Zero) useful for robotics is that while it can act like a true computer, it can also easily interact with the environment via built-in GPIO (general purpose input/output) pins. This means that while a ‘Pi can do image processing via an add-on camera or take inputs over WiFi, it can also control a motor or other physical outputs to allow it to move around a room or otherwise interact with its environment.
As with the Arduino, there is a huge community that supports Raspberry Pi. You can add functionality via HATs (Hardware Attached to Top), similar to how the Arduino shields work.
Other DIY Robotics Platforms to Check Out
Though the Arduino and Raspberry Pi platforms might be the best-known DIY robotics boards, they certainly have plenty of competition. A few that I find interesting include:
Espressif ESP8266 WiFi Module: This device is meant to be a WiFi transciever module, but it also has built-in computing capabilities. Given their tiny size, GPIO pins, and the price of well under $10, this could be considered for small and simple robotics applications.
STM32 Nucleo Board: This board is compatible with Arduino Uno shields, so you can take advantage of that community, but it uses a much different online programming environment. As Grady Hillhouse puts it in his International Space Station tracker video, this might be the right board if you want to get “a little bit further from the specs of the Apollo guidance computer than the Uno R3” in your project.
When I asked Wesley Faler, who works with satellites with Miles Space and is a huge fan of Arduino, what should be on this list, he suggested the FreeSoc. It uses an architecture that places a “programmable fabric between the peripherals and the pins,” which allows any pin to execute any function. Faler mentions that this board also gives you the capability to sort of make your own custom chip via the development software. Though challenging, this can give you some important advantages.