Getting started with robotics

mobile-wheeled-robot

Want to enter Pi Wars but don’t know where to start? Got a problem with your robot you need to solve? Wondering how to tackle some of the challenges? Here are some resources to help you.

If you can think of any kits, resources or videos we haven’t listed, please leave a comment or contact us!

Basic equipment and know-how

For a basic robot that can enter Pi Wars, you need the following:

  • A Raspberry Pi (any model will do)
  • A way to communicate with your Raspberry Pi remotely. This can be using the Pi’s in-built wifi connectivity (if you’re using a Pi 3 or Zero W) or using a wifi dongle, for example.
  • A chassis (something to attach everything to – a lot of kits come with a chassis, but you can make do with an ice cream tub or cardboard box!)
  • Motors
  • Wheels
  • A power supply for the Raspberry Pi and a power supply for the motors. You shouldn’t run your motors off the Raspberry Pi’s pins, for technical reasons, but it is possible to get a motor controller board that will take in a power supply and split it between the Raspberry Pi and the motors. If you choose to supply power separately to the Pi and the motors, you will need something like a USB battery pack for the Pi that can give out at least 1A (if you’re using a Zero) and preferably 2.5A if you’re using a Pi 3.
  • A motor controller board. There are several available, including the one that comes with CamJam EduKit 3. The Picocon from 4tronix is probably the cheapest out there. More advanced ones include the Thunderborg from PiBorg and the PiCon Zero from 4tronix. Alternatively, build your own driver with a chip.
  • Wires or jumper cables to connect the controller board/circuit to the motors.
  • Cable ties, sellotape, gaffer tape, blu-tack (you need to fix everything to the chassis somehow!)
  • Sensors
  • A controller of some sort (you could control your robot from a laptop keyboard, a tablet, a mobile phone, a Wii controller, a Bluetooth controller or something else!) The Pi Hut does a wireless controller which is very popular. Take a look at Brian Corteil’s excellent guide to remote control options.

Robotics Kits

The easiest way to get started with robotics is to get hold of a kit and follow the instructions on the supplier’s site. There are a few kits out there, but here are a few recommendations, not in any particular order:

CamJam EduKit 3

This is the third in a series of basic electronics kits for the Pi. This one is all about robotics and includes (almost) everything you need to build a remote-controlled and autonomous robot. Just add batteries and your own chassis (or use the box it comes in!) and you’ll soon have built your very own buggy. Use the worksheets to learn how to use all the bits. Only £18 from The Pi Hut. Profits from the EduKits go back into CamJam/Pi Wars to allow us to run bigger and better events. The EduKit 3 is a good ‘starter’ kit in that it helps you understand the basics of robotics and you come out with a decent robot at the end of it. It’s been shown not to be particularly competitive in Pi Wars, but it is possible to enter with one and be able to complete some of the challenge courses.

Coretec Robotics “Tiny”

Tiny 4WD is small but powerful robot that you build yourself. Unlike many other small robots, Tiny can be used outside on the patio, deck, playground even gravel paths/drives. The first Tiny was designed for the MagPi magazine “How to build a Pi Wars Robot” feature written by Brian Corteil.  The kit contains all you need to build the chassis including our Raspberry Pi camera face plate , great for computer vision projects plus a Pimoroni Explorer pHat to drive the four motors powering the large grippy wheels. The kit, which costs £55, also includes a mini breadboard for adding sensors and help supply power to the motors. The Tiny has been shown to be quite competitive in Pi Wars with several teams using it to enter.

Note: You will need to supply the Raspberry Pi Zero, and power source.

GoPiGo from Dexter Industries

This is a really nicely made kit from Dexter Industries with particular attention to providing a great controller board and a really good chassis. There are two kits: one at $90, one at $200, the latter containing a lot more, including the Pi itself. More information and links to buy are available here.

DiddyBorg from PiBorg

This is for the more serious roboteers out there. The DiddyBorg is an incredibly powerful £200+ robotics kit that includes everything you need (apart from the Pi). You can see a picture of it above, and it really is a work of art. The torque on the motors is impressive (although not that speedy) and there are plenty of instructions, code samples and tutorials to get you started with it. Definitely worth a look if you’re looking to splash out. You can also take a look at the more powerful MonsterBorg and YetiBorg from PiBorg.

Costs

How much is it all going to cost me? That’s a question we get asked a lot. As referenced above, you can pick up a CamJam EduKit starter kit from £18 and then add on to it. You’ll likely want to go with at least a Tiny 4WD, though, if you want a good chance of competing in all the challenges. Depending on the challenges for the current year, you may also need to develop ‘attachments’ for the different courses. To give you an idea of how much it cost him, Sumit Maitra (who competed with Pi-o-steer) has written an excellent blog post which details all the bits and pieces you may need, and how much they cost him. Please note, his robot was fairly ‘custom’ and featured a lot of 3D-printed parts, but it gives you an idea of how to approach sourcing various components.

The Raspberry Pi Guy’s robotics series

Here is Matthew Timmons-Brown’s series on getting started with robotics and tackling some of the fundamental challenges you will face in competitions such as Pi Wars. He bases his series around the Pi2Go Lite.

An Open Source robot from Ipswich Makerspace

TractorBot

Keith Ellis and the guys over at Ipswich Makerspace did brilliantly well with their robot, TractorBot, at the first year of Pi Wars. They won Best Robot under £75 and placed very respectably in most of the challenges. (You can see the full results here). They have decided to open-source their designs and code for TractorBot, which means that other competitors this year will have a head-start on many challenges if they take the time to go through the code. Design specs will also be released so if you want a good base to start from, you could do far worse than take a look! You can read the start of their open-sourcing project here.

Discussion Forum

For general help with the Raspberry Pi, there is nowhere better than the Raspberry Pi Foundation forums. There is a Discord chat channel for Pi Wars that is worth joining if you are interested in competing.

Watch a video

At the Cambridge Raspberry Jam on 17th September 2016, Brian Corteil gave an excellent talk about building a Pi Wars-winning robot. You can see a recording of that talk below:

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