The range of robots goes far beyond R2-D2 to C3P0, as this year's World Maker Faire in New York City shows. The hacker-hobbyist gathering featured an eclectic mix from full-on humanoids programmed by engineering graduate students to motor-driven cardboard boxes and walking soda cans made by 4-year-olds. In between was a collection of bots, mostly costing well under $1,000, based on inexpensive electronics that are surprisingly easy to program.
This six-legged spider bot avoids obstacles by using a pair of ultrasonic sensors that function as its eyes. It can not only walk, but even dance. ArcBotics manufactures its own parts from laser-cut plastics and sells the kit for a modest $250. The Hexy is powered by Arduino, a circuit board favored by robot builders. It comes with a few moves (like dancing) preprogrammed, and you can add others with basic commands such as “rotate right 40 deg.” As users advance they can move on to more sophisticated programming using the Python language.
This humanoid bot, built at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, is extremely dexterous, with arms, hands and even fingers that move as freely as a human's. A half dozen are at universities in the United States as part of a learning project for developing software and hardware improvements. "You can check that your results make sense if everyone else around you has the same robot," said Ph.D. candidate Robert Ellenberg of the Drexel University Autonomous Systems Lab.
While the military spends tens of thousands of dollars on robotic copters, hobbyists are building simpler models for a few hundred. This four-rotor bot starts at $450 (you must supply a battery and radio controller) and can be upgraded to six or eight propellers. Like most drones, it has a bevy of sensors to keep it level and a GPS that allows it to fly to any destination on its own. Adding $100 gets a video camera and transmitter — a no-brainer addition for the amazing footage and ability to pilot it remotely. In a competition sponsored by the U.S. military, a Typhoon flew 2 miles and landed on a roof to conduct mock surveillance.
Inspired by video games, a pair of high-school students — John Ryan and Bob Rudolph — decided to make a super-paintball gun. Using their own software and circuit boards that they designed and built by hand, they've equipped a paintball turret with the ability to recognize and track targets (people). Their open-source software and boards, which sell for about $50, have been used by the Australian navy to automate nonlethal guns for training exercises. "I was shocked when I heard that," Rudolph said.
Box and can bots Tomorrow's robotic engineers start at 4 years old at the Brooklyn Robot Foundry — a learning center founded (and mostly funded) by an engineer and technology educator. They foster creativity by introducing the kids (up to age 11) to basic propulsion systems (motor, wheels) that they build into robots made from "found objects," including boxes, soda cans, egg cartons and pipe cleaners. "Kids really like water-bottle caps," said co-founder Jenny Young. "We always run out of those." Classes start at $50.
OpenROV Wanting to explore an underwater cave that might contain gold, David Lang and Eric Stackpole decided to develop a low-cost underwater robot. They created a website and invited members (now numbering 1,000) to help them design the hardware and software. The result is a tethered robotic rover controlled by a very long data cable. It's equipped with a camera and lights and can dive to nearly 100 meters (328 feet) — allowing it to explore much of the continental shelf off the U.S. coasts, said the creators. (Users have been developing their own add-ons, including arms and sensors.) The pair didn't find gold in the cave they explored, but they did find it on Kickstarter, where they sold 150 robots for $725 each.