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Thread: Hello, I am a writer. My heroine builds a robot sidekick, and I have some questions.

  1. Hello, I am a writer. My heroine builds a robot sidekick, and I have some questions.

    Hello everyone, I'm a writer. Firstly, I'd like to apologize if I come across as some kind of annoying clueless tourist.

    I'm writing a superhero story, and my heroine loves to create different kinds of life, so she takes an interest in building robots. I wanted to make the process of her building a robot believable and accurate. Little details that would make someone who actually does this stuff say "Oh, this Hollywood writer actually gave a damn, that's pretty clever."

    Her goal is to build a small spider robot that can walk around and has a voice synthesizer of some sort, and launch a small projectile from its back.

    Questions (Just answer which ones you feel like):

    1) In basic terms, what kind of process would she go through when making it? I'm aware this is a complex question, be reductive if necessary, I don't need an exhaustive or thorough description, just basic steps.

    2) What is an example of a problem she could encounter, as a beginner roboticist?

    3) Would she write her own programming? I think I read that pre-installed programs are usually written for robots, called microcontrollers, right? What kind of programming languages are used at first?

    4) Where are materials obtained?

    5) I read that Assembly is a very difficult programming language to use, and it's usually used for industrial purposes. If I want her to look smart, would making her use it do the trick, or would that be absurd?

    6) What is an example of a n00b mistake that beginning roboticists make?

    7) What are some signs of veteran craftsmenship?

    If you took the time to read this, thank you very much! I'm aware this is probably a very bizarre kind of thread, but I figured it's best to do this kind of research by talking to people who love this hobby.

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    Re: Hello, I am a writer. My heroine builds a robot sidekick, and I have some questions.

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    Hello everyone, I'm a writer. Firstly, I'd like to apologize if I come across as some kind of annoying clueless tourist.

    I'm writing a superhero story, and my heroine loves to create different kinds of life, so she takes an interest in building robots. I wanted to make the process of her building a robot believable and accurate. Little details that would make someone who actually does this stuff say "Oh, this Hollywood writer actually gave a damn, that's pretty clever."
    A significant amount of popular misconceptions about the current state of robotics and artificial consciousness come from certain corners of the computer science and artificial intelligence communities that have gotten more than a little bit too infatuated with their own over-hyped cleverness. If anyone ever claims something like 'the singularity' is imminent because of 'exponential' anything, just ignore them as they are living in their own little world outside reality.


    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    Her goal is to build a small spider robot that can walk around and has a voice synthesizer of some sort, and launch a small projectile from its back.

    Questions (Just answer which ones you feel like):
    0) What human obstacles would a female character face in building a robot?
    Suffer through lots of horrible, sexist shit from misogynist fuckwits for exploring the possibility of being a woman in STEM ('go play with dolls', 'lady brains can't do math/science/etc.', 'go make me a coffee/sammich/etc.', etc., etc., etc.). Fortunately, there are efforts to combat this (https://adainitiative.org/) but 'the night is darkest just before the dawn' and the 'bro-grammers'/'bro-gamers' are very aggressive in preserving 'their' spaces. Having authority figures supportive of everyone exploring their interests and satisfying their curiosity outside of rigid gender roles would be a nice addition.


    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    1) In basic terms, what kind of process would she go through when making it? I'm aware this is a complex question, be reductive if necessary, I don't need an exhaustive or thorough description, just basic steps.
    Get an idea of how you want it to look and what capabilities you want it to have, then start searching for existing work (several quad/hex kits and toys exist) and learning the common terms in the 'discipline'/'industry'. Slogging through the multitude of specialized technical terms that get generated in a technical discipline is ever so much fun </snark>, but still fairly necessary to communicate with others and identify the robot parts and abilities you desire. After that it is build, experiment to breaking point, revise design, rebuild...


    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    2) What is an example of a problem she could encounter, as a beginner roboticist?
    Pinching fingers and/or breaking servos when the robot unexpectedly contorts itself into a ball or other odd shape. Pretty much everyone does it at one time or another, and it can be very painful and embarrassing. Some larger servos combined with metal brackets could break bones and amputate appendages if one is not careful. Industrial robots are even more dangerous and there have been deaths due to humans moving within a robot's operating envelope while it was performing a task.


    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    3) Would she write her own programming? I think I read that pre-installed programs are usually written for robots, called microcontrollers, right? What kind of programming languages are used at first?
    The kits sold at trossen use a dynamixel servo controller board/module (CM-530, CM-9, arbotix) that possesses a microcontroller that can be programmed with an assortment of ready-made and make-your-own control programs. The CM-530 uses a commercial product named RoboPlus that offers a simple programming language similar to C (RoboPlus Task) and a very easy to use interpolating motion creator (RoboPlus Motion) to create pre-recorded motion sequences in a manner similar to stop-motion animation. The arbotix is Arduino-compatible (C/C++ with easy to use libraries for controlling microcontroller pins) and includes an interpolating motion engine named BioloidController and motions are created with pypose (name of both the Arduino sketch that runs on the arbotix and the Python program similar to RoboPlus Motion that runs on the PC). There are plenty more controller and language options if using inexpensive R/C servos, and just about any programming language can be used with a USB-based dynamixel servo interface board (USB2Dynamixel, USB2AX, Arbotix-Pro) and a PC.

    There are hardware and software options for voice synthesis, but robots/computers capable of understanding, let alone utilizing, natural language are still a ways off. The problem is that human brains are massively parallel, constantly self-modifying analog networks that automatically fill in blanks, and existing software and hardware are still nowhere near as capable. Much of our memories are constructed on the fly from archetypes and a few key details, and the memory recall process is actually 'read-modify-rewrite', not a pure 'read', so you risk modifying every memory you attempt to recall.


    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    4) Where are materials obtained?
    Lots of online and meatspace sources. McMaster-Carr, ebay, amazon, hackerspaces, hobby and R/C shops, harbor freight, big box stores, scrapyards, dumpster diving, etc. Instamorph/Polymorph (polycaprolactone) is a very nice polyester plastic that can be molded by hand after heating it up in water on a stove or in a microwave. Once upon a time, many US public schools had shop classes where you could learn to acquire materials and operate tools without requiring a personal investment of hundreds to thousands of dollars in tools and lots of self-motivation. Basic machining tools would be a hacksaw, a hand drill, a center punch (makes drilling holes much easier and more accurate), a cheap metal file set, and a decent screwdriver set. Basic electronics tools would be a digital multimeter and a soldering iron (not a soldering gun).


    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    5) I read that Assembly is a very difficult programming language to use, and it's usually used for industrial purposes. If I want her to look smart, would making her use it do the trick, or would that be absurd?
    Assembly is rarely the first language one learns (and every processor architecture has its own variant), and not one ever uses very often. I had to learn it as part of two college courses in an engineering program and it is great for helping to understand the low-level operation of microcontrollers, but it can be horribly annoying to implement higher-level ideas in assembly (entire point of higher-level languages and compilers is to make it easier to implement complex and abstract ideas). C/C++ tend to be a bit on the 'hard-core' side and capable of implementing just about anything, while python and javascript tend to be a bit easier to use and nearly as powerful/versatile. There are plenty of other languages available with many esoteric and specialized languages for performing certain tasks or research.


    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    6) What is an example of a n00b mistake that beginning roboticists make?
    Getting too excited and buying lots of expensive parts before doing enough research on their capabilities and support communities.


    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    7) What are some signs of veteran craftsmenship?
    That it works (nearly) as intended. The rest is just artistic and/or manufacturing ability/skill.


    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    If you took the time to read this, thank you very much! I'm aware this is probably a very bizarre kind of thread, but I figured it's best to do this kind of research by talking to people who love this hobby.
    Not really that bizarre...
    Please pardon the pedantry... and the profanity... and the convoluted speech pattern...
    "You have failed me, Brain!"
    [git][mech][hack]
    gives free advice only on public threads

  3. Re: Hello, I am a writer. My heroine builds a robot sidekick, and I have some questions.

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    2) What is an example of a problem she could encounter, as a beginner roboticist?

    7) What are some signs of veteran craftsmenship?
    I'm a veteran software developer, but a beginner roboticist. I personally struggle with the mechanical and electronic design aspects. When you become a veteran in any field you know what works and what doesn't by past experience. You can apply that experience to solve new problems quickly. I can look at a software problem and quickly tell you exactly what kind of data structure would best be applied. I struggle figuring how strong of a servo I need or if I'm supplying enough current for my robot though. When you are beginner it's a ton of research and trial and error before you solve anything.

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    3) Would she write her own programming? I think I read that pre-installed programs are usually written for robots, called microcontrollers, right? What kind of programming languages are used at first?
    If her spider robot is remote controlled a microcontroller alone should work, if it has autonomous behavior she'll most likely need a more powerful computer doing the higher level reasoning. It's very common to have one or more microcontrollers handle the lower level servo control and sensor reading but having a SOC or full blown computer doing things like navigation, computer vision, audio processing, etc.

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    4) Where are materials obtained?
    I think a lot of roboticists are looking into 3D printing. I know I am.

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    5) I read that Assembly is a very difficult programming language to use, and it's usually used for industrial purposes. If I want her to look smart, would making her use it do the trick, or would that be absurd?
    Very few people use assembly. It's very low level direct to the silicon. Python, C++, Java would be more appropriate languages.

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    Re: Hello, I am a writer. My heroine builds a robot sidekick, and I have some questions.

    Hmm, fun questions!

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    1) In basic terms, what kind of process would she go through when making it? I'm aware this is a complex question, be reductive if necessary, I don't need an exhaustive or thorough description, just basic steps.
    Everyone's process is a bit different, and depends partly on the experience you have going in. For me, I didn't have much engineering or programming background...more chemistry, biology, and a little 3D design. My process was:

    1) Research, research research in sites such as this one to get an idea of how to build and program the robot I wanted.
    2) Get a kit and build it for some practice and fast gratification
    3) Design my robot in 3D software (Inventor)
    4) Obtain parts by scavenging from the kit, ordering online, and rapid-prototyping at my local hackerspace [laser-cutting and 3D printing]
    4.5) At the same time, obtain open-source code, and modify it for my specific needs
    5) Build it, load up software, and test run!
    6) Iterate steps 2-5

    Also, it's important to note that as a beginner I have avoided getting ambitious too quickly. I have copied a lot from people with more experience, and so far I have done only very limited autonomous behavior programming.

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    2) What is an example of a problem she could encounter, as a beginner roboticist?
    Servos overheating and burning out. Making a programming mistake, and rather than standing up and walking the robot twists and curls up like it was hit with the cruciatus curse.

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    3) Would she write her own programming? I think I read that pre-installed programs are usually written for robots, called microcontrollers, right? What kind of programming languages are used at first?
    Depends on the project. It's common to take existing open-source code, perhaps found on GitHub, and modify/expand it for the specific project. Maybe for something complex like this she would use ROS (robot operating system). However, if this robot is supposed to be a functioning, intelligent, talking side-kick you will probably need to dip into sci-fi. Maybe she has a black-market positronic "blueberry pi" programmed with an experimental military AI.

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    4) Where are materials obtained?
    Already some great answers above. For 3D printed parts, she could create the design then order them online, or have a 3D printer of her own , or (my favorite) go to a hackerspace. One memorable experience is ordering parts from a tiny seller in Korea, since that was the cheapest source. Then I wait weeks for them to arrive, when they finally do I'm like a 5-year-old on christmas morning.

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post
    7) What are some signs of veteran craftsmenship?
    Cable management and clean design. Somewhere in these forums, someone commented that first-time designs often look like radio-shack vomited all over them.
    Last edited by Lupulus; 09-19-2014 at 10:54 AM.

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    Re: Hello, I am a writer. My heroine builds a robot sidekick, and I have some questions.

    For #2, forgetting to plug things in, mis-setting variables, shorting out pins, leaving screws out, frying parts with the wrong current/voltage, etc (all of the ones I specifically listed I've done, and I'm just now starting to not have my 'not look like radio shack threw up and tried to tidy in non-essential spots.

    My process involved a lot of trial(not exactly listening to others telling me it won't work) and error, plus a few sucesses that still got redesigned due to things I didn't like about them.

    M-O and HS walker (both hswalker threads) are examples of many of us who are a little more hard-headed beginners tend to start. I admit, I was a little bit of a help vampire. Really depends on how you character's personality is.

    Forum threads about people's 'bots are really good places to figure out the various design processes we use (we are all slightly different in our process we use)

    EDIT:#6 fits in with my #2 answer also.

  6. Re: Hello, I am a writer. My heroine builds a robot sidekick, and I have some questions.

    Thanks for all the answers so far. You guys rock! You've been very helpful.

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    Re: Hello, I am a writer. My heroine builds a robot sidekick, and I have some questions.

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadow Light Master View Post

    5) I read that Assembly is a very difficult programming language to use, and it's usually used for industrial purposes. If I want her to look smart, would making her use it do the trick, or would that be absurd?
    I took a couple of assembly language classes years ago, but never had a chance to use it outside of a classroom. The only time I recall seeing somebody use it was years ago. Seem to recall a senior engineer I was working with wanted to go in and tweak or create a command. This might be a reason a heroine might want to know assembly.

    As has been said, most people aren't going to use it. For example it is much easier to write the command for "print" in a programming language then to shuffle around all the 1's and 0's with assembly and get your message out.
    Last edited by plugger; 09-27-2014 at 09:43 AM.
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    Re: Hello, I am a writer. My heroine builds a robot sidekick, and I have some questions.

    Assembly is a human-readable layer over the binary machine code that runs in the processor, you cannot tweak or create any new commands but you can override the output of a compiler. It is basically used only for extreme optimization on low-power embedded platforms. Some of the arduino bootloaders use a bit of this since avr-gcc has certain architecture specific commands/libraries that use more cycles, memory, and registers than required (using extended addressing instead of local). It is also used for hard real-time systems running on very slow clocks and/or systems with very few general purpose registers or timers (such as the 68HC11 we had to use 2008~2010, and still used as of ~2013) where you have to count the number of cycles a segment of code requires instead of waiting for a timer register to fill to a certain point.
    Please pardon the pedantry... and the profanity... and the convoluted speech pattern...
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    Re: Hello, I am a writer. My heroine builds a robot sidekick, and I have some questions.

    I imagine it is what tician said. The incident I mentioned was years ago, so my memory is probably a little convoluted. Sorry if I muddled the conversation, good to get unmuddled.
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    Re: Hello, I am a writer. My heroine builds a robot sidekick, and I have some questions.

    One thing I'm probably too late to add to this conversation is that this stuff takes *time*. Even with years of similar experience in relevant tools, an individual is going to require a lot of time to design/test/implement/perfect a robot. If your heroine builds her autonomous bot in a week, informed readers will likely facepalm.

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