How Not To Build A Robot

By | 24/02/2020

I’ve gained a lot of experience over the last few months with regards to Fusion 360, 3d printing, electronics and more besides. I thought I’d share some of those lessons.

As Complex As You Make It

The most important lesson, as with any project, is to have an idea of what you’re building from the start and how long you have to build it. If it’s a relatively simple design, there will still be a lot of issues you’ll come across that will take added time to figure out, doubly so if you’re learning as you go. My robot concept was complex to start with, more so than I expected, and I had a lot more to learn than I realised too. However long you think you need, add more and if possible simplify your design.

In retrospect, more of a plan than a quick sketch wouldn’t have gone amiss…

I had a bunch or early wins, I used existing parts from an RC car to make early proof of concepts which sped things up, and this gave me a little too much confidence. I was designing elements in Fusion 360 in isolation, assuming they’d work, and that burnt me a lot. I went through a number of different chassis designs as prototypes in the early steps and it wasn’t until I realised I needed to have more of a complete design done in CAD to see how they all fitted together that I could save an awful lot of time. I’m still not great at this but certainly getting better.

Longer term I need to learn how to do joints in Fusion 360 so that I can actually see how things fit together and what constraints there are.

I wasted a lot of time in what was designing seven different robots, I couldn’t have got to where I am without doing it though so a difficult balance to make.

Seriously, Make A List. Then Check it Again…

I had the vague idea that I’d have the Stereo Pi up top in the head for stereo vision, this would give a lot of opportunities for computer vision too. Around the chassis would be a ring of sensors, ultrasonics were what I had in mind to start with, but though simple to work with they’re quite large. I didn’t really know better so that’s that I went with. Later on I learned of the VL53L0X which is a really cheap lidar sensor and a lot smaller too. They had the quirk of having the same i2c address by default so you need to use i2c multiplexors or have them connected in such a way to reset their addresses on first boot… More complexity!

Again, we’ve all PHDs in hindsight but having a more solid plan and spending more time on research and planning in the early stages would’ve paid off in the long run.

Burnout

Look. After. Yourself.

As I mentioned earlier on I had lots of early successes which gave me an awful lot of false confidence, as soon as the easy wins came and went and the real struggle began the build got a lot more difficult, both technically and mentally. For those who know me or have been reading the blog for a while will know I suffer from Anxiety and Depression, they’re a bugger individually but when they join forces they’re truly evil. A few weeks before I applied to enter PiWars my beloved cat, Willow, passed away. To say this was hard on me is an understatement, coupled with the year tailing off, getting darker and colder, and things going from win after win to struggle after struggle, things got rough.

I tried to push through it, that was a big mistake, and I made the best decision for the project which is to take breath and start again. With a lot of support from my girlfriend, the rest of the PiWars community, friends, family, and colleagues alike I slowly got out of the funk while making slow but consistent progress. The Epic Rebuild Began.

Conclusions and Next Steps

I’ve learned a lot, come an awful long way in may regards and though I’ve still a lot to do I’m in a better place and so is the robot. The next steps are to get the controller up and running and the robot drivable again.

In the next blog post, I’ll talk about the plans for the challenges. As it stands I’ve almost one arm and only need to finish the hand, add a bunch of sensors and remote control. I have a minimum spec in sight and will at least be able to compete.

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