8 SERVO 12.2017
The Straight Scoop on Odometry
Hard to believe it’s December already (especially for
me, since I’m writing this in early October), but it’s true.
This is my 12th column, marking a full year for me as Mr.
Roboto. Year’s end and Christmas remind me to reflect on
what I’m thankful for. Among many other personal things,
I’m thankful for the freedom to pursue my robotic and DIY
interests, and also to live in such an amazing technological
time. There are new discoveries and inventions almost every
day. It’s getting hard to keep up, isn’t it?
Robot kits, parts, and components are abundant and
cheap — especially online from Alibaba and eBay China. We
did lose RadioShack and Hobby People this year, among
other retail establishments. I certainly miss those stores for
parts and materials. It forces me to plan ahead, order
online, and hoard! I come from a long, proud line of
hoarders. Such a pity the houses here in Los Angeles are so
small, or I’d hoard more. It’s self-governing, I guess.
Besides the convenience of buying that one last part I
invariably need for a project, I liked places like RadioShack
and Hobby People because they provided inspiration for
me. Socializing with fellow nerds is healthy. It’s fun to chat
with clerks and customers, see what they are working on,
and what inspires them.
Moreover, I get ideas just walking through such places
and looking around. Seeing new parts and being able to
pick them up to get a feel for them. Twisting servos. Flexing
music wire and sheets of Midwest balsa and plywood. It’s
very different from surfing online. I need to touch these
things. That tactile (oops, HAPTIC) experience of holding
these materials is crucial to my creative process.
Related, my young daughters love dollar stores, and I
must admit that I enjoy poking around in those outlets too.
Who among us doesn’t love a bargain? They have some
tools and even surprising electronic bargains: USB doodads,
amplified speakers, cables, IR remotes. Note: If you like it,
buy it now, since they may never have it again!
I designed toys for Mattel for 30 years, working with
huge markups and overhead costs. If there’s anyone who
appreciates a pound of plastic for a buck, it’s “this guy!”
When I roam those stores, I can’t help but look for
alternate uses for everything I see.
That three-pack of plastic bowls is actually a set of
beacon tower bases or round chassis for swarm robots.
That picture frame clear acrylic window or the flat chrome
serving tray is a sheet of something I would have paid a lot
more for elsewhere. Those six pink silicone kid’s party
bracelets make great tires; now what’s here about that size
to use as a wheel? Food jar lids? Coasters? A slice of foam
pool noodle? It’s like a treasure hunt.
A few years ago, Jameco sponsored a very open-ended
“Coasterbot” contest; the only requirement was that you
use a CD or DVD for a chassis. Your robot could do
ANYTHING you wanted. You can see the winners at
rbot-contest-by-club-jameco-winners and my video entry
I had lots of fun doing that, even though I found that
DVDs are horrible to build with; they are brittle and
CA/accelerator (my lifeblood) makes them craze and crack.
I think a similar open-ended contest to build a robot using
mainly dollar store parts would be even better. What would
you build? Maybe you’ll have some free time over the
holidays to get your hands dirty. I sure plan to. Now, let’s
dive into the final Mr. Roboto question of 2017:
Q. My brother and I built a “smart car” robot kit we got to carry messages back and forth between our ooms. It never goes straight! With no electronic
circuit — just wiring both motors together and directly to
some batteries — it always curves and hits the wall. Why
won’t it go straight?
Windsor Mill, MD
by Eric Ostendorff
Our resident expert on all things robotic
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