Cheerful adult smiling man adjusting his robotic hobby device while sitting at the table

Getting Started With Robotics as a Hobby (How Step-by-Step)

Getting started with robotics as a hobby can be intimidating, especially if you lack formal training in the subject. However, you can build and polish your skills and abilities to a high level and excel in the field. So how do you get started on your robotics hobby?

Getting started with robotics as a hobby entails enrolling in an online course, learning electronics, mastering the C programming language and the Arduino board. Then you can progress to building your first robot using a robot starter kit. Joining an online community lowers the learning curve.

In this article, we’ll provide a step-by-step guide to help you get started with robotics as a hobby. After reading this guide, you’ll feel more confident about starting your journey into this fun and exciting sector. It’ll help you get better results and lower your learning curve.

Enroll for an Online Robotics Course

Robotics is a multi-faceted subject since it boils down to your learning preferences. Different people will take different paths as there are many choices available to a robotics beginner.

young woman soldering a robotics hobby piece on a table

Some people learn best by diving into the robot building process and learn by getting their hands dirty. Others prefer a logical approach, and if that’s the case, you’re better off taking an online robotics course.

Since robotics is such a broad field that requires multiple skills and in-depth knowledge of many subjects, it is best to approach it logically. A robotics course will equip you with the fundamental knowledge and skills you need to excel in the field.

College professors and other seasoned veterans teach the most reputable robotics courses in the industry. As a result, the lessons are well-structured, detailed, and highly relevant.

Most introductory courses start by examining the robotic basics, the history of robots, and their relationship with humans to set the pace.

They will then delve into how robots are made while examining critical components of designing a robot and explore how robots operate.

You’ll then learn the basics of designing, building, and controlling a robot as you gain more knowledge.

Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can kick things up by enrolling for a free online robotics course from top universities such as the University of Columbia and Pennsylvania.

Young woman experimenting with a robotics kit as a hobby

The University of Columbia’s Robotics course covers robotics fundamentals while focusing on the body and mind. You get to learn the core techniques to creating robots that can perform just about any task.

Or you can enroll to an online course such as MicroMasters in Artificial Intelligence from Columbia (this one expired already, but a simple online search can reveal many) and learn how to solve complex problems with machine learning. The course teaches you how to manipulate robotic arms.

It covers forward and inverse kinematics, kinematic chains, and representing mobile robot maps to help you plan complete robot systems.

Enrolling in the University of Pennsylvania’s Robotics course gives you a chance to learn from seasoned professors at the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory.

The course arms you with the mathematical knowledge and programming tools you need to build functional robots. You gain valuable skills to assess real-world problems to let you design and develop a robotic solution.

The online robotics program comprises four courses and covers machine learning, visual intelligence, locomotion engineering, and robot dynamics and control.

Robotics is a multi-faceted discipline that requires knowledge in various subjects such as mathematics, physics, and engineering.

These courses cover linear math, multiple sciences, and technology disciplines such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, engineering, design, and data science.

Although top-tier universities run such courses, they don’t require you to seek university admission or cost a fortune in tuition fees. Most of them are available on educational platforms such as EDX and Coursera.

Such educational platforms allow you to enroll for free or at minimal costs that are way cheaper than a semester at the said universities.

The courses are self-paced, and by committing a few hours every week to your education, you can build a wealth of robotics skills and knowledge.

Learn a Programing Language

Roboticists often say that robots are dumb. At first glance, that might go against the brilliant things you’ve seen robots doing, such as surgery and defusing a bomb.

A better way to phrase this statement is a robot is only as smart as its commands. Robots require step-by-step instructions telling them precisely what to do before carrying out even the most basic functions.

And that’s where programming language comes into play by helping bridge the communication gap between humans and robot machines.

It allows you to communicate explicit instructions to the robot to guide and direct its actions. C programming is the most fundamental language in robotics because it’s commonly used in robotics hardware libraries. Hardware libraries allow roboticists to interact with low-level hardware while allowing for real-time performance.

Why Learn C Programming Language?

C is a simple, structured programming language with a broad range of applications. It’s popular with roboticists because it’s highly flexible, machine-independent, and writes various applications.

The Windows Operating System and other complex programs such as Python Interpreter and Oracle database are based on the C language.

C is hailed as the foundation of modern programming languages since recent programming languages spurn its concepts. A good mastery of the C language forms a solid foundation for learning other programming languages.

Since C is a structured language, it allows you to break down complex projects into simpler programs known as functions. You can work on each function separately before combining them into a complete and functional C program.

The structuring makes it easy to test, maintain, and debug programs based on the C programming language. The language contains 32 keywords, powerful inbuilt functions, and various data types to allow efficient programming.

One remarkable feature of the C language is the ability to extend itself. Each C program comes with a library that lets you add more functions and features when you need to.

Since you can access the library to add and use the features at any time, the C language lends itself to complex programming projects.

How Does C Programming Language Work?

C is also known as a compiled language. As the names suggest, a compile is a tool that compiles a program then converts it to a machine-readable object file. Once the program is compiled, a linker combines different object files into an executable file that runs the program.     

Compilers to execute programs written in C language are readily available on the internet, and they all have the same functionalities.

The c programming language is a mid-level computer language because it combines higher language elements with assembly language functions.

It allows for matchless bits, bytes, and address manipulation. That lets the programmer determine how the program behaves with great precision. It also provides direct access to the mechanics of the attached hardware.

C++ is an advanced version of the C programming language, and it contains everything in C while adding Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) support. However, it comes with numerous features and improvements that make it a refined version of the C language.

Some of the additional features in C++ include inline function calls, encapsulation, inheritance, overloading operators, and polymorphism.

You can learn C or C++ from the numerous online resources, including paid courses, tutorials, websites, books, and free lessons from various MOOCs such as Coursera, FutureLearn, and EDX.

Learn Electronics

Mastering electronics is the first step towards building any electronic gadget, including robots. Luckily, there are many resources to help you refine your knowledge and develop your electronics skills.

Mastering these ten crucial elements transforms you into an electronic whizz:

  • The closed-loop. Electronics revolves around how electrons flow from the negative to the positive battery terminals, i.e., a closed-loop. Understanding how closed loops work is crucial to creating flawless and functional circuits.
  • Voltage, current, and resistance. Understanding each element’s role on a circuit board, how they interact and affect each other is crucial. It offers insights into how current flows in a circuit and the division of voltage among components.
  • Circuit diagrams. Learning how circuit diagrams work gives sets the foundation for building circuits from breadboards. Regular practice improves your ability to create complex circuits that power complex robots.
  • Capacitors, resistors, LEDs, and transistors. You need insights into how each of these components works and their roles in a circuit. That allows you to tell what a circuit does from a simple glance.
  • Transistors as switches. Transistors act as relays that turn currents on and off, which allows them to double up as switches. That enables you to control buzzers, lights, and motors with a transistor. You can also use them to sense temperature and light.
  • Soldering. Soldering is a crucial skill when building custom circuit boards as it allows you to create functional and durable robots. Regular practice will help you make exceptional solder joints that won’t fall apart.
  • Diodes and capacitor behavior. Complex circuits include a capacitor, diode, and a resistor, which affects the voltage and currents. You should know how the components interact as it affects how a circuit works.
  • Integrated circuits (ICs). Simple circuits aren’t enough to build a robot because they’re limited to basic functions. For added functionality such as memory, sound, and intelligence, you need integrated circuits. At first glance, ICs are complex and challenging, but they will open new horizons if you master them.
  • Designing custom circuit boards. Creating a printed circuit board is the final step in building complex circuit boards with multiple functionalities. The entire process will polish your circuit knowledge and building skills. This convenient guide will help you create a Printed Circuit Board.
  • Microcontrollers. A custom PCB design coupled with microcontrollers improves your projects’ scope, but microcontrollers let you push the limits. Microcontrollers allow you to increase the functionalities of your circuit boards by incorporating code. You can create robots with advanced functionality without using huge circuit boards.

Going through each item on this checklist will build your electronics knowledge and skills to let you breeze through the rest of your robotics journey.

Get an Arduino Board

Once you’ve gained considerable theoretical knowledge about electronics, it’s time to put it into action. An Arduino board is one of the best ways to learn and cement your electronic knowledge and skills.

Arduino is an electronic platform based on easy-to-use software and hardware. Arduino boards are microcontrollers that read inputs such as a finger on a button and turn them into outputs like activating a motor.

You get to control an Arduino board by sending instructions to its microcontroller. Arduino devices use the Arduino Software known as Integrated Development Environment (IDE). It’s an open-source system and requires coding knowledge to use it properly.

C and C++ programming languages are used to program Arduino devices, hence the need to polish your mastery in the two languages.

Arduino Uno is the latest microcontroller board from Arduino. It carries all the features necessary to run a controller and connects directly to a computer through a USB cable.

You can transfer your code from the computer to the controller using the cable connection through the IDE software. You simply write your code in C or C++ in the IDE then transfer the commands to the controller on the Arduino board.

While there are other microcontrollers and microcontroller platforms on the market, Arduino boards stand a cut above the rest. It simplifies the messy process of microcontroller programming and packages it into a user-friendly bundle.

Arduino offers teachers, students, and hobby roboticists some distinct advantages:

  • It’s affordable. Arduino boards are cheaper than other microcontroller platforms. Most pre-assembled boards cost less than $50, while the hand-assembled modules cost even less.
  • Supports multiple platforms. The Arduino software runs on MacOSX, Windows, and Linux Operating Systems. Most other systems run on windows, posing a significant disadvantage to people using a different platform.
  • Intuitive programming environment. The Arduino Software lends itself to beginners while catering to the needs of advanced users. It’s based on a Processing program environment to lower the learning curve and improve mastery and familiarity.
  • It uses freeware. Arduino software is an open-source tool that’s extensible by experienced programmers. You can expand the language through C++ libraries, while those wishing to delve into the technical details can venture into the AVR-C programming language. If you want to, you can link AVR-C code directly into Arduino programs.
  • Easy customization. Seasoned circuit designers can create a custom version of the Arduino boards since they fall under a Creative Commons license. Inexperienced Arduino board users can also build a breadboard module to understand how it works while saving money.

Using Arduino Software (IDE)

The Arduino Software lets you write programs then upload them to the Arduino board. You have two options when using this software:

  • Arduino Web Editor. The online version eliminates the hassle of installing the software on your PC. The auditor lets save and backup your work in the cloud. You can access your work on multiple devices and work with the latest software version.
  • Desktop IDE. If your internet connection isn’t reliable, you can install the desktop version on your PC. The software is compatible with Mac OSX, Linux, and Windows.

Like any other software, Arduino comes with a slight learning curve. Luckily, there are numerous detailed guides on Arduino’s website to help you breeze through the initial stages.

Build and Program a Robot

Building a robot puts all the skills you’ve learned so far – electronics, controls, mechanics, and programming – to the test. It even lets you learn seemingly unrelated subjects such as human psychology and animal behavior.

It helps to define your goals and objectives for building the robot. Mostly that entails designing a robot to perform a specific function.

That said, you should know that the first robot will be the most challenging. Since you’re putting your fledging skills and knowledge to the test, it helps to keep it simple.

Treat your first robot as a school project that lets you learn all the robotics basics – terminologies, basic technology, tools usage, and how to source robot parts.

Robotics can be an expensive hobby, so you need to budget for your first robot. When starting, you’re unlikely to have any robot parts lying around, meaning that you’ll have to start from nothing.

Once you’ve set your budget, it’s time to pick a design, and it helps to keep it simple. Browsing robot galleries on the internet can help you choose a robot design that’s easy to build.

Please resist the urge to get creative or imaginative with your first build since it’ll tax you to the point of giving up. For now, you can skip the biped with a vision and arms.

You can settle for a 2-wheeled gadget you can program to move using the most basic robot algorithm – the differential drive. With this algorithm, you can program the car to:

  • Drive straight – wheels move forward at a set speed
  • Drive-in reverse – wheels move backward at a set speed
  • Turn left – right wheel moves forward while the left reverses
  • Turn right – left wheel moves forward while the right reverses

Varying the speeds on the wheel takes the car on an exciting series of curves.

Once you have the parts ready, it’s time to design and build your robot’s chassis. A proper chassis design improves your turnaround time and saves you plenty of headaches.

3D CAD software can help you breeze through the design stage. It lets you design parts that require minimal cutting and drilling. The program also allows you to plan the placement of all the components, including the screws, most efficiently.

This handy article has 7 beginner-level robotic kits for adults that can give you a great start in this journey at very affordable prices!

If the idea of sourcing different parts doesn’t sound appealing, you can opt for a complete robot kit such as the LEGO Mindstorms EV3. The kit comprises 601 pieces, including servomotors, four types of sensors, and inbuilt Bluetooth radio.

The kit comes with a programmable compute module, the NXT brick that uses NXT-G, Lego’s graphic programming language. The module comes with a drag-and-drop visual interface to allow you to develop programs quickly.

The Lego Mindstorms NXT allows you more latitude in robot designs. You can robots that will drive around, collect small objects, or shoot at a target within the ultrasonic sights.

As your skills progress and outgrow the Lego Mindstorms NXT, you can upgrade to an Arduino kit and build robotic art installations and mobile robots.

Although the advanced kits allow you to build complex robots, they’re designed to make the process simple and painless. Most of them ship with actuators, sensors, and controllers, often require no soldering, and use a drag-and-drop graphic interface.

Join a Robotics Community

Robotics is a fun and enjoyable hobby, but it can be immensely lonesome if doing it all by yourself. Unlike other pursuits such as jogging or bowling, there’s no need for a roboticist to leave their home.

You have all the necessary reading materials and tutorials on the internet, and you can sign up for an online robotics course. While convenient, such an arrangement can prove somewhat lonesome.

It can deprive you of the chance to share your thoughts with other hobbyists, which can prove rather painful when you’re stuck. Joining an online roboticists community can help you with both problems.

In recent years, robotics has grown in popularity thanks to technological advancements and lucrative career prospects. Similarly, there are numerous active robotics communities where like-minded people gather.

Such communities are a treasure trove for a budding robotics enthusiast. With a little effort, you can build meaningful online friendships, further your learning goals, and refine your mechanical skills.

Joining an online robotics community or group lets you ride the tailcoats of leading experts in the field. It also lets you interact with them and pick their minds.

It’s natural for thought leaders in the robotics sectors to share their insights, updates, and innovations with their online followers. You’re likely to come across detailed how-to’s, tutorials, kits recommendation, and hottest build kits on their social media pages.

Searching for Online Robotics Communities

You’ll find the best online robotics communities on forums and Facebook Groups. Such platforms enable interactions between members, detailed posts, tutorials, videos, and links to helpful articles for further information.

  • Facebook groups. Log into your Facebook account and type’ robotics communities’ or ‘robotics’ in the search bar. Pore through the results and join the most popular groups with active members.
  • Online forums. Enter the phase’ robotics + forums’ in Google search and then pore through the results. While most platforms allow you to view the content without logging in, you’ll have a better experience as a registered member. That allows you to interact with members, take part in discussions, and ask questions.

Other useful platforms include LinkedIn and Twitter, as they let you follow and befriend thought leaders in the robotics sector and access their content.

Once you’ve found and joined helpful online robotics communities, be sure to put them to fair use. First, pore through the available content to improve your knowledge, skills, and insights. Participate in discussions and ask away when you have questions. Seasoned roboticists are eager to share their knowledge and skills with newcomers.

Some of them can even offer to help you with the robot build, saving you considerable time and headaches. If possible, you can look for a mentor on such a platform and lower your learning curve.

If your chosen forum allows, start a progress thread showcasing your robot-building journey. Be candid and list your wins, uncertainties, frustrations, anything.

Documenting your journey helps to order your thoughts and invites people on the forum to provide the specific help you need to overcome any obstacles. It’s also an excellent way to connect with like-minded people and learn from them.

Take Part in a Robotics Competition

Taking part in a competition might seem like overkill for robotics hobbyists, but you shouldn’t rule it out. A competition affords you a chance to gauge your skills by pitting them against other players in the sector.

Such competitions test and assess your robots’ characteristics and abilities, reflecting your programming and robot-building skills. Naturally, you’ll want to stick to competitions that reflect your skills and interests.

Robot competitions fall into different competitions to cater to a broad audience ranging from students, hobbyists, and professionals.

Since robots come in all shapes, forms, and sizes, robot competitions use various criteria, including:

  • Nature of movement – aerial, wheeled, humanoid, aquatic, and more.
  • Outdoors versus indoors
  • Construction materials – branded versus Open materials
  • Interest groups – students, hobbyists, or professionals
  • Combat sport – robots reenact gladiator-like matches

Robot competitions take part at regional, national, and international levels. These events allow roboticists to showcase their works and take place throughout the year.

The competitions are an excellent way for hobbyist roboticists to network and grow their social contacts. They provide fun learning opportunities that will help build and polish your robot-building skills.

Final Thoughts

It’s possible to build your knowledge and skills in robotics without setting foot in a formal learning institution or going into debt. Numerous online learning resources will equip you with all the tools and information you need to accomplish that goal.

More than a handy online robotics course, you need to learn programming, electronics, master the Arduino board before you can build and program a robot.

Joining an online community helps to polish and improve your robotics skills while taking part in a robot competition enables you to gauge your abilities.

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