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Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Mon Mar 19, 2012 9:50 pm
by zedin
So I have always been curious about electronics and robotics but unfortunately went biology instead of engineering for my schooling/career.  I don't really have time to take any sort of 'formal' classes (aka go back to school) but I would like to try and learn the basics of robotics and the required amount of electronics to go with it.

Does anyone have any good suggestions on starting points?  Being 33 those kid 'learn to make a radio kit!' do not really apply too much to me since (from what I remember as a kid) they just say attach 'A' to 'B' and you don't really learn why or how it works.  That said I am not sure how detailed I need to learn electronics...  Do I really need to know how to design a circuit or just integrate several different components together sucessfully?

Basically.. Do folks have suggestions for starting points for any of it?  =p

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Mon Mar 19, 2012 11:01 pm
by ridge
This is a fairly tangled thicket of brambles in a simple question!

I would vote for a remote control quadcopter, built up from an Arduino microcontroller.

Lots of information online for beginners, and very much a robot even with the human intervention on the joysticks. The end product is enjoyable enough to keep the interest level up through the slog of filling in the knowledge gaps.

The RC groups are a good place in general to learn electronics without computers as well.

http://www.hobbyking.com has good prices on bits and pieces that would come in handy for robotics.

For instance a BEC (battery elimination circuit)  on the hobbyking site will be used on my RPi to regulate 12V from a large battery to the 5V supply needed on the RPi.

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Mon Mar 19, 2012 11:25 pm
by MG2R
I myself am a hobbyist in robotics. I also have a love for the arduino as µC (have used PicAxe before, but that is just not powerful enough).

A *very* good starting point would be http://www.letsmakerobots.com. It's a very alive community of really helpful people and you can find lots of demos on the site (including a start here robot).

As for the electronics: it's wise to learn about the basics, such as Ohm's Law, some components (resistors and capacitors, for example) and how sensors work. But you can decide for yourself how far you'd want to take that knowledge.

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Mon Mar 19, 2012 11:56 pm
by Golem
Now: How to Make a Robot – Lesson 1: Getting Started (10 lessons)

After: Robot Building for Beginners

Later: Intermediate Robot Building

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 1:52 am
by exartemarte
Certainly start with the first item on Golem's reading list, and then read anything and everything you can find on the web about robotic projects at a suitably introductory level. You will find that common themes start to emerge and you will gain an overview that will help a lot - when you have a problem you will have some points of reference and some idea of what it is you need to find out.

Secondly, previous advice notwithstanding, I'm going to suggest that you do start with Picaxe. It will be a good while before you outgrow it and it's not expensive. Initially you will want lots of information, and one of the good things about Picaxe is that there are very good (free) manuals on the Picaxe website covering the system as a whole, the programming language in detail, and how to interface the controllers with external circuitry. Having all that information in one place, and specific to the system you are using, will save you many hours of searching and frustration. There is also a helpful forum where you can go for advice when you get stuck, or just want to know the best way to do something.

Any microcontroller needs a certain amount of support circuitry to make it work and enable you to program it. To keep things simple you could buy a Picaxe-28X2 Module - it's a little more expensive, but it comes with the support circuitry (voltage regulator, resonator, programming interface and reset switch) already built in. It's about as close to plug'n'play as a microcontroller gets. You will need:

The microcontroller module

Programming software (free download from the website)

A download cable - probably USB if you'll be using a laptop

A breadboard (eBay)

Some assorted jumper wires (eBay)

A couple of LEDs, a couple of 330 ohm resistors and a sounder (Picaxe website)

That should be plenty to get you started. Long ago as it was, I still remember the buzz from seeing my first microntroller program flash an LED. When you've mastered flashing and beeping, you might decide you'd like to try a mobile robot - there are plenty of expensive robot chassis about, but there are also some reasonably cheap ones (under £20), such as this one from HobbyTronics.

(I have used several kinds of controllers in my own projects, including Picaxe. Picaxe was my system of choice for teaching introductory control systems to students in a college of further education. There are a couple of Picaxe projects on my website, which is sorely in need of updating.)

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 7:41 am
by Andre_P
I would echo MG2R's point, learn the absolute fundamentals first.

Start off with a battery and a voltmeter, apply the probes and look at the voltage, then reverse the placement and look at the reading.

Then get another battery and look what happens when you put the batterys in line and then parallel and then go from there. Start looking at Ohms Law, working out the effective resistance of parallel and series resistors. Understand the Power equations (P=IV etc). Then look at what is needed to get an LED to light up.

Get hold of an experimental matrix board (sorry can't remember the proper name it's too early in the morning). You can just push components in and little bars internallygrip the component and provide a connection. Means you don't need to worry about soldering.

I'd get hold of a book called "The Art of Electronics". Good basic stuff in there, starts at low level and gently rises in complexity.

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 8:56 am
by MG2R
Andre_P said:


Get hold of an experimental matrix board (sorry can't remember the proper name it's too early in the morning).


That would be a breadboard indeed, very handy!

exartemarte said:


Secondly, previous advice notwithstanding, I'm going to suggest that you do start with Picaxe.


As for this point, I'd have to say that indeed, the PicAxe is a good chip with a very easy language. But still, I'd go for the arduino... It too has a full-blown website (arduino.cc) with howto's, examples, big-ass forum... The lot, really. On top of that, it is a lot more powerful and I think that hardware wise, the arduino platform is more complete, with better kits to get you going.

If you do buy a breadboard, and decide to go for arduino as a uC, then I'd advice you to go for an arduino nano, which plugs right into that breadboard. On top of that, you can easily pug it into home-made PCBs, if you provide the "connectors" on it. That way, you can easily plug in and unplug your uC from your projects, so you can reuse it and don't have to worry about buying a new one for every project.

In short: it rocks!

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 10:27 am
by Lakes
Nice site for beginners.

http://www.kpsec.freeuk.com/index.htm

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 10:33 am
by exartemarte
I wouldn't take issue with anything that MG2R has said above. Essentially we're suggesting the same approach: buy a module and a breadboard, and get going. I can't personally recommend Arduino since I've never used it myself, but the Nano which MG2R suggests is a self-contained module that you can plug into your breadboard and start attaching things to, just like the suggested Picaxe module. There is downloadable programming software but, again, I haven't used it.

The Arduino may be a little more expensive, but against that you won't need a special download cable - just a mini-usb which will be much cheaper (if you don't have one already).

The major difference for a beginner, if you don't have prior programming experience, will be the programming language. Picaxe uses its own version of Basic, which is easy to use. Arduino uses a variant of C, which will have a much steeper learning curve but is ultimately more flexible and more portable. (For more advanced projects C is actually my language of choice, but I chose Picaxe for my students to get them building control systems more quickly.)

In the longer term, since Arduino uses expansion boards which plug together, you may be able to build more complex systems without having to learn to solder. All of this comes at a price, however, and if you do very much with robotics you'll probably need to learn how to solder and assemble circuit boards eventually.

Note that the Arduino community uses peculiar terminology, calling programs "sketches" and expansion boards "shields" and giving processors names such as "Duemilanove" which the average English speaker can probably neither pronounce nor spell. This supposedly makes the system more accessible: in my view it just makes it obscure and is the principal reason why I've never bothered with it.

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 10:35 am
by exartemarte
Lakes said:


Nice site for beginners.

http://www.kpsec.freeuk.com/index.htm


What he said...

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 1:14 pm
by Chris.Rowland
I've used PicAxe and Arduino; my recommendation would be to start with a PicAxe for experimenting with electronics hardware.  This is because they are really cheap - less than £2 for the 8 and 14 pin versions - and this means that when you fry one it doesn't cost much. For the same reason get an Arduino that's socketed so you can just replace the IC, not the whole board.

Move on to the Arduino when you want more speed, want to play with interrupts and all that sort of fun. The language is more main stream.

I've got a project using a Picaxe that monitors the position of a dome containing a telescope and transmits the position to an Arduino that handles driving the dome rotation motor and communication with a PC. The Picaxe is sufficiently low power that I hope to get away with running it on 2 AA batteries that get changed once a year.

Maybe I'll replace the PC with a Pi

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 1:24 pm
by ridge
Forrest Mims engineer's notebook series available at Radio Shack back in the day allowed the self-study of many electronics concepts with projects.

They are out of print I think, but the hand-drawn schematics and small breadboard projects were a painless and fun way to learn.

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 1:29 pm
by MG2R
exartemarte said:

Note that the Arduino community uses peculiar terminology, calling programs "sketches" and expansion boards "shields" and giving processors names such as "Duemilanove" which the average English speaker can probably neither pronounce nor spell. This supposedly makes the system more accessible: in my view it just makes it obscure and is the principal reason why I've never bothered with it.

Yes, the vocabulary is a bit 'odd', but other than "sketches" and "shields", you won't find anything strange. The Duemilanove is not the name of a processor, but of a package (PCB holding a µC and the needed supply circuitry). It has now been superseded by the Uno. At the moment, most of the arduino hardware packages use an ATmega 328 as µC.

NB:Duemilanove is some sort of Italian word. (The arduino makers are Italian)

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 3:35 pm
by zedin
Thanks for the suggestions!  The picaxe and arduino both look like good starting places.  My programming skills are fairly limited (mainly self taught php to make online databases in grad school and some basic and C way back in undergrad) so I might start with picaxe but I do like that the Arduino has such a large community.  I will probably go with a starter kit that has both a chip and breadboard or such to keep it somewhat simple at first.

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 4:11 pm
by SN
well this thread has just got my juices flowing

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 6:11 pm
by Andre_P
SN : Honestly, children might be reading !

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 7:46 pm
by amateurasu
Diecimila means 10,000 in Italian, so named because they had made 10,000 Arduino boards by that point.

Duemilanove means 2009 in Italian, so named because that one came out in 2009.

Uno means one in, well, several languages.  So named because the Arduino development environment had moved out of prerelease 0.xx versions and was now good enough to be called 1.0.

For me, when I started looking into getting one of these microcontroller kits to get started with this stuff, it was an easy choice between Arduino and Picaxe.  I'm fairly comfortable with C, and just looking at Basic makes my skin crawl, so Arduino it is.  YMMV, there are tons of people who are happy with either one (or both).  Another nice thing with Arduino is it's pretty painless to transition from using the Arduino IDE on Arduino boards, to programming on a wide range of AVR microcontrollers, using Atmel's AVR Studio, or your own C environment, or even Notepad, and a toolchain that you can find plenty of help for if you need it.  It may be a similar situation with Picaxe, though.  I wouldn't know.  I didn't look into them much further after learning that you program them with Basic.

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 7:47 pm
by zedin
Hm.. for starting off would you suggest one of the small units that go into a breadboard or maybe a larger unit already on a board?

I think I have decided on the Arduino but am also looking at the Uno.  And should I try to get a 'kit' that has various components (leds, wires, etc) thrown in or just buy what I need as I go?

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 7:56 pm
by ridge
The Arduino Pro Mini 328 could one day fly in this...

http://www.multiwiicopter.com/

If not, it's still fun on a breadboard. *smiles*

(Don't blame us if this turns into an obsession)

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 10:08 pm
by MG2R
zedin said:


I think I have decided on the Arduino but am also looking at the Uno.  And should I try to get a 'kit' that has various components (leds, wires, etc) thrown in or just buy what I need as I go?


I have a Uno lying on my desk... It's pretty decent The Nano and Uno are actually exactly the same board, except for the form factor it comes in. I should've bought the Nano, but I made the mistake of going with Uno.

The fact that the Nano can be plugged into a breadboard is quite underrated. This means that you can do easy prototyping. On top of that, you get the possibility of using just one Nano board for multiple projects, by plugging in your Nano to these things on the PCB of a project.

As for the kits: I'm more of a buy-as-you-go guy, but that's entirely personal. I think that kits with a µC + some other electronical parts (mostly resistors and LEDs) are completely obsolete. Most of the time, you don't get enough of the component you need for your project and a lot of the components you don't need. But again, that's just my opinion, do as you see fit.

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 10:16 pm
by MG2R
zedin said:

And should I try to get a 'kit' that has various components (leds, wires, etc) thrown in or just buy what I need as I go?
Cancel the last paragraph of my previous post (can't find the *edit post* button). Since you don't have any components, it's handy to get a kit of different electronic components. Resistors will be needed for virtually every project and when you start using motors and the like, you'll be wanting capacitors for noise cancellation. Also, a few LEDs and switches won't hurt either

PS: 7+9 != 15

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 11:01 pm
by exartemarte
This has been an interesting thread, and hopefully of some help to zedin who posted the original query.

I've been less than enthusiastic about Arduinos since I first looked them up when they were new, and was irritated by the obfuscatory terminology. However, after reading the posts in the thread I just might buy a Nano and give it a go. When I've finished the projects in hand, of course - one using a Pololu AVR board and two using Picaxes ...

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Wed Mar 21, 2012 11:48 pm
by zedin
Well I think I will go with an uno and a nano..  most of the project seem focused on the uno and I know they are the same so I will just have 2 then right? =)

Now to find some projects to start with...

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Thu Mar 22, 2012 6:38 am
by john_wage
in my opinion there are two major ways you can go about making a robot.

if your robot is going to perform advanced computing and sensoring you will probably need to start integrating platforms (ie. a RPi computer? ) and in this case I would say that your most valuable knowledge would be understanding signal in and output so that you can successfully integrate many devices into one "robot".

if you want a more "insect-instinct" based device or maybe pre-programmable movement schedules, you could easily get by with making your own circuit boards and hand-solder your components, you would probably need to understand how to set up a microprocessor (can be done by instructions, without prior knowledge).

when you solder your own circuit boards you need to have basic knowledge on electricity, aside from basics like how current flows, how resistance works etc. (that most nerds probably know) I would recommend starting out with learning to read electric circuit schematics, understand what those symbols mean, because in 75% of the cases, what ever electronic device you need to build, someone has already made it and with some luck instructions can be found online.

Re: Suggestions for learning electronics/robotics?

Posted: Thu Mar 22, 2012 2:28 pm
by zedin
john_wage said:

when you solder your own circuit boards

On that note.. how would folks recommend I practice soldering?  Do they have just cheap blank circuit boards with holes and pads that I can practice with?