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Kits for Learning
Robotics is a multi-discipline
science. Among its main elements
are mechanics, electronics, and
programming. Ready-made robot kits
offer to lessen the learning curve of
each of these disciplines. At some
point, however, it's useful — to be a
well-rounded robotologist — to learn
at least the basics of all three.
In past columns, we've covered
learning more about mechanical
aspects of robot design, including
materials selection, fasteners, and
construction techniques. In this
month's column, we'll discuss learning
more about the electronics side of
things. To keep things as basic as
possible this time around, we'll
concentrate on using "learning lab"
kits and the tutorials that come with
them to learn more about electronics.
These kits come with all the parts you
need to follow the step-by-step guide
that’s included with the product.
These learning labs are a great way
to begin your electronics education.
Analog or Digital
Most learning lab kits for
electronics can be roughly divided into
two distinct camps: analog electronics
and digital electronics. Analog
electronics are centered around the
basics of electricity and how it flows
in a circuit made of wires and other
common electronic components.
These fundamental components
include resistors, capacitors, switches,
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batteries, indicator lights, and so on.
Digital electronics delves into
the world of computers and
microcontrollers. These kits are
designed to teach things such as
binary logic and other computer
science fundamentals — what is a bit,
byte, or word, how individual bits can
be synchronized to transmit data, and
so on. There are other forms of
learning lab kits (of course) including:
• Hybrid. These kits contains tutorials
for both analog and digital.
• RF. These kits are designed to
help you learn more about radio
• Special function. Let's not forget
all the kits that are designed to be
assembled to construct a particular
device, such as an FM broadcast
station or electronic digital dice or a
noise generator. While these kits
aren't designed to offer much
experimentation in different designs,
most special function kits contain a
theory of operation section that
discusses how the circuit works.
Of the two main types — analog
or digital — beginners should opt for a
kit that teaches the basics of ordinary
analog electronics, even though more
and more circuits (especially in
robotics) are the digital variety. Even
digital circuits use many types of
analog components — for instance,
resistors to limit current to light
emitting diodes or capacitors to help
remove electric noise and smooth out
voltage levels. Learning the purpose of
these and other common electronic
components goes a long way in the
digital world, and to effectively design
or work with digital circuits, you need a
firm grounding in general (i.e., analog)
electronics theory and practice.
What's in the Typical
Learning Lab Kit?
Learning lab kits are composed of
three main parts:
1) Solderless breadboard. The breadboard allows you to plug in wires and
other components to build up a circuit.
There's no soldering involved;
hence the name "solderless." The
breadboard is composed of multiple rows and columns. The columns
are electrically connected together,
to form "tie points" for the various
components that you are using in
the circuit. The size and complexity
of the breadboard may vary,
depending on the level and cost of
the kit. A very basic kit may contain
only a small breadboard which is
useful for just simple circuits. The
more elaborate kits come with a
larger breadboard, allowing you to
construct more elaborate designs.
2) Tutorial or guide book. An integral
part of the kit is the step-by-step
tutorial or guide book that instructs
you on how to build each circuit. The
quality of kits varies greatly here. A
guide book that merely shows you
how to connect up various parts