The Robotics Club
Woodbot and friends
I'm not an engineer or at all mechanical, but the Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor Area Robotics Club meetings are for hobbyists, not professionals, and are open to the public.
Inside Corsa Instruments' workshop, people are working on their robots on a room-length worktable. One man sets his wooden robot on a trail of black electrical tape. It's a four-wheeled contraption, about six inches long, that carries a little box and what I believe to be a circuit board on top - fine little wires attached to teensy lights and gumdrop-looking things. The robot uses light sensors to "see" where it's going and adjust its course to follow the line of tape. The owner doesn't like its jerking motion, though, so he carefully moves some of its parts and tries again. Another man asks him what he calls his robot. "Woodbot," he answers without looking up.
At the other end of the table, a boy about ten years old is working two robots, which also follow a tape trail. Both of his robots are made of Legos. One has an extendable arm that scoops up a tinfoil ball and carries it in an oval path back to the starting point. Well, that's what it's supposed to do, but right now it's straying off the tape and toward the table's edge. The boy masterfully fiddles with the robots, a nearby laptop, and a tower that communicates with the robots; as he works, he explains for me what he's doing. Yes, these are Lego toys - they're called Lego Mindstorms and come with a microprocessor. The robots can talk to the laptop and each other through the tower, which is connected to the laptop by USB.
Another boy (there are about eight here) is sitting on the driveway outside adjusting the arms of his robot, another Lego Mindstorm. He says that when it "senses" something, it shoots rubber bands at it. When you clap, it stops. He's very patiently adjusting its
arms, trying to shoot a group of adults who are standing around their own larger robots, or "bots." Someone tells me that microprocessors are so cheap now that club members garbage-pick children's remote-control toys and turn them into robots. A man wearing a Hawaiian party shirt straps a laptop to a flat, four-wheeled robot with two pink and two black wheels. The laptop has a global positioning system. He starts driving the robot, mapping out the parking lot.
When I go back inside, Woodbot's owner has successfully adjusted his robot to smooth out its movements. The man helping him says, "See? We're constantly improving it. Now let's see if we can make it go faster."
The Robotics Club meets again on Wednesday, August 22.
[Review published August 2007]