Getting Started in Robotics 
SFRSA recommendations

by Cliff Thompson, "Mediameister", SFRSA

The Robotics Society often gets e-mail from kids and parents requesting information on how to get started in Robotics. Betsy Schmidt sent us the following question about her son's interest::

"...My 12 year old son Evan is creating an independent study class for himself and decided to study robots and to make a robot. Would you be able to give us good sources of information about...robots in use currently and designing and building a robot ?...". 

Another request regarding robotics career education is provided by budding student roboticist Joshua Mauer:

" ... Can we have some info on the school of robotics???...I'm a student looking for a career in robotics and I found your name on a website and I'm real interested since I'm starting to look into schools. If you can send some (info) I'd be real happy..."

These and many other questions prompted me to write the following summary of resources that I hope will help you, your children, or children you teach get a good start learning about robotics.

  • SFRSA members provide a number of excellent offerings including a Robot Store, Bookstore, and Workshop.
  • SFRSA  along with aliied organizations such as Pitsco Lego Dacta Catalog, NASA Robotics Education Project, and UC Berkeley's Poly-Pedal Lab, provide opportunities for asking questions, finding mentors and networking connections for student roboticists.
Robot Store
SFRSA member & Past President's Roger Gilbertson runs "The Robot Store", whose catalog & website offer a comprehensive collection of robot kits from beginner through advanced. You can order a catalog from the website or  peruse it online. The site contains a chart titled "Choosing Robots for Your Experimenters" that organizes systems by skill areas (hardware, electronics, logic) & levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced). An example of an "all-beginner-at-all-skill-levels" kit is the "Wall Hugging Mouse". This "mouse" is a popular "maze runner" robot, and is a good starting point that lets you "test the waters" and stimulate your interest by building a maze-running robot.
If you prefer something more like a "Gilbert Chemistry Set" approach with which you can progressively learn about the various areas of robotics & build several kinds of robots, then Lego Mindstorms, originally developed at MIT, is most popular & has a number of systems. On the LEGO Mindstorms page you can click on the "Products" icon, which takes you to their offerings, as well as their Product Selector web pages, which list their main lines of robot systems, by age group (9+ & 12+). 

The systems start with simple constructions, then proceed to higher orders of complexity & requirements, for example, beginning robot systems are self contained whereas the more advanced require use of a PC CD-ROM player to read Building Instructions &/or a PC for additional programming. One popular product line is "Star Wars" - kits for making machines like R2D2 & AT-AT. These are called "Droid Developer Kit" * & "Dark Side Developer Kit"  and are developed for children ages 9+ through 12+.

The Lego website also offers a community where members can exchange robot programs, obtain tech support, join forums & get information on participation in First Lego League Robot Competition events. 

The LEGO Machines and Mechanisms series is wonderful for teaching mechanical concepts such as gears, levers, wheels, axles, and pulleys . Some of these products are suitable for children as young as five years old. Others challenge children well into their teens. The toys are from LEGO Dacta, the educational division of the LEGO Company. They design learning concepts that encourage children to use their creativity and natural curiosity through minds-on and hands-on experience. LEGO Dacta Learning Concepts are available solely through specialized dealers.

Robot Bookstore
SFRSA member & Robot SUMO (& also Battlebot's) Champion Carlo Bertoccini runs a Robot Bookstore website called "", a descriptive excerpt from which notes "Our Job is to sort through the many robotics books available today, and select, review, recommend, and sell, just those few that we feel are the very best". The site also offers a Newsletter as well as extensive "Robot News" & "Links" sections.

Robot Classes & Workshops
SFRSA President David Calkins teaches Sumo robot construction techniques at his annual robot building class at the Exploratorium, in the classroom area.  The classes typically occur in the Nov. - Dec. timeframe, every Sunday from 1pm - 4pm, for 4 weeks.  For specific schedule info, e-mail SFRSA President David Calkins.

SFRSA member & Lawrence Berkeley Lab Engineer Zach Radding is building an on-going Robot Workshop, now under construction & slated for opening late 2001 in Berkeley.  Until then Zach has already started an East Bay Builders Group & created a website called "Zach's Cool Stuff". A descriptive excerpt from the web page reads "Where High school and college-aged members expand their knowledge of electronics, robotics, mechanics and computers through hands-on projects". Zach is currently offering regular robotics-oriented project meetings weekly in the East Bay, on Monday nights 7pm at Mills College.

Many of the entrants & winners in the Annual SFRSA Robot Games Sumo Competitions built their machines in the robot-building classes taught by David &  Zach. 

For a comprehensive list of K-12 through University Robotics curricula, see the NASA Robotics Education Project (REP) section below, particularly the Students and Educators links and news stories of their High Tech collaborations with Schools & Businesses. 

Annual SFRSA Robot Games
Every year around mid-September SFRSA hosts the Robot Games. Events typically include Line Slalom, Rope Climb, Robot Sumo Wrestling, LEGO Mindstorms Challenge, Hexapod Challenge, B.E.A.M. Robot Competition, Maze Challenge, Obstacle Course/Terrain Challenge, AIBO Races & Demonstrations & Open Events.

High Schools and Colleges are strongly encouraged to contact us and build a robot for the competition. Sumo bots, Mindstorm bots, and Aibo performers can all be designed and built within a week or two. Contact  for more information! Help is available for students and teachers who want  to build robots for competitions. 

Games held at the San Francisco Exploratorium were Webcast thanks to the Exploratorium's wonderful video crew! 

Pitsco Lego Dacta Catalog
This catalog offers, for kids, a number of what might be considered pre-robotic technologies prepatory/primer training systems (simple machines, wheels & axles, gears...), LEGO Mindstorms design software (Autodesk "Lego CAD"), additional sensors, replacement parts & alternative programming environments ("ROBOLAB") & a "Mars package" developed in conjunction with NASA/The Planetary Society (ROBOLAB was developed from "LabVIEW", used by NASA on the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover mission). 

Though you do not need these systems before working with Mindstorms (the concepts are introduced as needed on-the-fly in Mindstorms projects), they can round out education in these areas & thus provide more design ideas. Some of the later links below in this section are more "future informational", a vision of where things are headed, i.e. Mars. You can order the "Pitsco Dacta catalog", as well as a newsletter, from their website.

Pitsco Lego Dacta

Wheels & Axles
Pneumatics 1
Pneumatics 2

eLAB Energy, Work, Power
eLAB Renewable Energy
ROBOLAB Investigator
ROBOLAB Programmer
ROBOLAB Conversion Pack for iMac/iBook 
ROBOLAB Complete Pack for iMac/iBook

ROBOLAB/LabVIEW @ Nat'l. Inst.

LabVIEW on Mars
LabVIEW Student Edition 

Red Rover II: Mars Site Package
Red Rover Control Screen 
Red Rover, Planetary Society

Red Rover Goes to Mars
Red Rover Student Training Mission
NASA Robotics Education Project (REP)
REP offers a strong focus on student robotics activities. An excerpt from their website reads "To inspire dedicated to encouraging people to become involved in science and engineering, particularly robotics. NASA will need many people with skills in these areas in the next decades to continue space exploration...REP supports a variety of robotics programs...Curriculum for K-12...(&)...Robotics competitions such as Botball (KIPR) and FIRST".  The REP Students and Educators links list a collection of robotic programs.

NASA also offers JPL Web Interface For Telescience (WITS), software developed to provide Internet-based control of planetary lander & rover missions. WITS was used for the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover, Mars Polar Lander Robotic Arm & Camera & will be used for the FIDO Rover 2003 & beyond Mars missions. Included is a public version of WITS, developed for projected public/student participation in future planetary missions, that you can download and use on your own computer to send real WITS commands to Virtual NASA Robot Rovers & Arms.

Other interesting software sites are:




Robotics Education Project

 (where it reads "Interested in...Undergraduate Robotics...")

 (where it reads "College robotics")

WITS JPL Web Interface For Telescience (WITS)
VIZ  Site Ames 3D Visualization (VIZ)
Remote Agent 
JPL AI Group Continuous Activity Scheduling Planning Execution and Replanning (CASPER)

Automated Scheduling and Planning Environment (ASPEN).

LAPIS Student participation in Mars Rover Testing is enabled by a number of school programs like LAPIS, which familiarizes students with the  operation of WITS & VIZ
RoCS JPL/Ames Rover Control Station (RoCS)
VLAB Remote VR Telepresence Virtual Lab (VLAB), 
Rover site
Rocky  FIDO
WITS & VIZ software is typically used with Mars Rover operations on machines like Ames K-9 & JPL's Rocky & FIDO, all prototypes of upcoming Mars Mission Mars Exploration Rovers (MER).
Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Mars Mission Mars Exploration Rovers (MER)


NASA Ames, at Mountain View/Moffett Field, CA, NASA's main robotics research arm, is also engaged in several High Tech collaborations with Schools & Businesses, as recently reported in the San Francisco Chronicle Newspaper.  These collaborations are part of an initiative to create NASA Research Park, aiming to be the leading world engineering R&D center, whose members already include Stanford, UC & Carnegie Mellon, which institutions have already begun to offer courses such as Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Autonomy High School summer session.

"New site to search for life in space - Silicon Valley spot dedicated for Carl Sagan Center"
"NASA, Universities Plan Research Co-Op - Project will unite space agency, high-tech industry, nonprofit groups"
"Colleges Join to Train High-Tech Workers At NASA Center - Campus envisioned at Ames facility"
"Dreamtime Lands NASA Deal"
"San Jose State to Join Forces With NASA - Partnership at Ames center covers education
"UC, NASA join forces in $330 million project 10-year venture probes origins of life, space"

UC Berkeley Poly-Pedal Lab
Headed by Professor Robert Full, the lab studies animal motion and its application to 3-D model animation and robotics.  Professor Full's community service activities have included a talk at SFRSA and a class with "Concord, CA...Oak Grove Middle School students...(to) animal locomotion and design biomorphic explorer robots to search the solar system".
Special Interest Group (AIBO SIG)
SFRSA "Mediameister" & amateur roboticist Cliff Thompson set up the San Francisco AIBO club to focus on the Sony Entertainment Robot America (ERA) Artificial Intelligence Robot (AIBO) system. This system runs APERIOS (Embedded Real-time Robot Operating System), offers a wireless land area network (LAN) system for real time wireless operation/communication/software download & a modular hardware platform ranging from animal(s) to a recently introduced humanoid prototype, the SDR-3X.

Software titles for AIBO  include Fun Pack (picture taking), Hello AIBO (mature AIBO), Party Mascot (game play), Master Studio (original motion & sound scripts), Navigator (remote operation, navigation, conversation, viewing) & Messenger (voice command, email/appointment notice/web keyword-watch news fetch, retrieve & voice synthesis read). Boston Dynamics (BDI), run by former Founder/Director of the MIT Leg Lab Marc Raibert, has created an AIBO Humanoid Simulator, using custom BDI software called Digital Biomechanics Laboratory (DBL), which resembles Mechanical Dynamics "ADAMS" (Mechanical Dynamics Mechanical Design Simulation) / Virtual Prototyping software.

The first meeting of the San Francisco AIBO club took place at the San Francisco Sony METREON, where Sony hosted the "AIBO 2nd Anniv." party on June 16, 2001. The  event was preceded by a talk from ERA Head, Sony VP Takeshi Yazawa on "The Future of AIBO".

Typically, software for controlling robot movement accompanies the robot system & makes use of Virtual Reality simulations of the control panel & robot components to some degree. Examples of some of the more approachable systems listed in the preceding sections are presented below:

  Robot Store
    LEGO Mindstorms
      Exploration Mars

  Pitsco Lego Dacta Catalog
   LabVIEW Student Edition 
    Red Rover Control Screen

NASA Robotics Education Project (REP)
  JPL Web Interface For Telescience (WITS)
  Ames Virtual Environment Vehicle Interface (VEVI)
  JPL/Ames "WITS+VEVI" Rover Control Station (RoCS)

Special Interest Group (SIG)
  AIBO software
    Master Studio (original motion & sound scripts)
    Navigator (remote operation, navigation, conversation, viewing)

A robust approach is to build a VR World populated by robots and the objects they may encounter, perhaps with varying degrees of simulated
physics properties that might accurately emulate various events. Examples would include slopes or collisions with other objects. A recent entry in the VR World arena is Adobe Atmosphere, one of whose main proponents, Bruce Dahmer, founder of Digitalspace Corp., is engaged in building for NASA Ames, a virtual habitat on Mars slated for potential use in the NASA Mars 2003 mission (demonstrated at the the recent Exploratorium-hosted CyberArts Celebration), and a Dashboard for the International Space Station. Additionally, for NASA Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) January 2004 MER landings on Mars, Bruce has put together an Atmosphere (updated with Physics simulator) Virtual World website called "Drive on Mars" that can model mars surface that MER sees and allow people to drive on Mars virtually.

Adobe Atmosphere
Digitalspace Mars Habitat  (from SFRSA CyberArts report)
Drive On Mars (from SFRSA announcement)


Virtual Prototyping

Robots can be designed, tested & prototyped using a suite of Solid Modeling/Simulation, Stereolithographic & AI software. Some commonly seen favorites are listed, followed by a case study using all the resources below (& then some) to create an actual Artificial Intelligence/Life robot, ATR/Genobyte's CAM-Brain Machine (CBM) driven Robot Kitten "Robokoneko":

"SolidWorks" 3D Modeling Software is initially used for the mechanical design, to model the components of a robot.

"COSMOS/Works" & "Moldflow Part Advisor" optimize load/boundary conditions & material choices for components via mesh Finite Element Analysis.

"Working Model" Motion Simulation is then used to "create fully functioning virtual prototypes of the most complex mechanical designs" with it's support for the "...full range of physical phenomena, including, mechanical dimensions, weight, distribution of mass, motor types, torque, positioning, friction in joints and the ground, dynamic and static loads, gravity, moments of inertia, spring elasticity and loading, collision and proximity detection". Another popular choice is Mechanical Dynamics "ADAMS" (Mechanical Dynamics Mechanical Design Simulation) / Virtual Prototyping software.

"Stratasys Genisys 3D Printer", "Innovative Solution 3D Systems SLA-3500" stereolithography printers & "Surfware Surfcam CAD/CAM Systems" are used to create 3D models directly from engineering plans by carving the designs directly out of various materials. Jobs can be run and paid-for on a per-unit basis at stereolithographic service bureaus and model shop locations in a manner similar to using machines at a Xerox copy center.

Personal Fabrication

Robots can be created from engineering plans using a "personal fabricator" such as "eMachineShop, an application that produces a physical 3-D copy of almost anything...The concept is simple: Boot up your computer and design whatever object you can imagine, press a button to send the CAD file to...[a personal fabricator shop, where your job is run on the various cutter, milling, vacuum former & injection molding machines listed below, & in a few weeks later they'll]...FedEx you the physical object", as noted in a recent Wired magazine article on desktop manufacturing titled "The Dream Factory":

"CorelDraw" can be used to design the robot & direct the fabrication machine shop cutter machines.

"Roland CAMM-1 CX-24 sign cutter" & "Epilog Legend 24TT laser cutter" serve to create circuit board elements & other 2-D body components.

"Roland Modela MDX-20 milling machine", "Formech 660 vacuum-former" & "WASP injection-molding Mini-Jector #55" produce 3-D parts.

"Atmel AVR microprocessors" are inexpensive robot controllers programmable in Python, Basic, and Logo.

"eMachineShop" & "Squid Labs" are personal fabricator shops; "Instructables" is a Squid Labs database of projects and fab techniques.




Biological Studies

Animal motion and behavior studies such as those carried out at the UCB Poly-pedal Lab & MIT's Leg Lab, sometimes augmented with motion capture suits, can extract the characteristics of such activities as legged movement. Suites of characteristics can be used to produce motion-script files which can be run on 3D animated computer models of biologically-inspired robots in physics-based computer simulations. These VR 3-D Kinematic Animation Modeling with Physics Properties studies can be used to develop Robot Control systems.

Artificial Intelligence and Related Software

Artificial Intelligence (AI) software: A promising application is developing applied dynamic artificial intelligence. The robot can connect via wireless mobile software to a PC Server farm, even a hyper-threaded multi-processor parallel PC array, running sophisticated integrated Artificial Intelligence software ensembles. Such software collections can include Genetic Algorithms, Neural Nets, Fuzzy Logic, Expert Systems, Intelligent Agents, Help Desk, Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, Optical Character Recognition, and Speech Recognition/Synthesis. As the robot encounters challenging situations, data is transmitted from the robot to the AI system. The AI system mines and crunches the data until intelligent methods and procedures are found. These are then transmitted back to robot to try. A classic example is using a Genetic Algorithm/Neural Net combination to get smarter at solving some task in real time such as a competition ball game or maze navigation event. Another is remote field office problem determination/solving and delivery of technical expertise via Help Desk and Intelligent Agent resources. A low-cost Humanoid toy for prototyping wireless AI applications is the recently announced "Dr. Robot".

Multi-Robot Distributed Data Network: In this extension of an AI-driven robot system, a team or community of robots share data, learn from and teach each other. Each robot grows smarter at a much faster rate that single unconnected robots working in isolation. Large tasks that require teamwork, including many household/office chores, can be broken down into subtasks and accomplished quickly because the robots are arranged in a Wireless Collaborative/Cooperative Multi-Robot Distributed Sensing/Data Collection Network. In a particularly compelling application, Artificial Life based, Particle systems driven, Agent software can be used to generate motion and behavior scripts for Virtual Reality groups of Robots, as was recently demonstrated by the use of MASSIVE software in battle scenes of the film "Lord of the Rings".

Genetic Algorithms (GA), Neural Nets & Cellular Automata:  These tools can be mated to robot development to accelerate to advanced results. AI software like Brandeis University's Dynamical & Evolutionary Machine Organization (DEMO) may be used to accelerate the evolution of optimum performance, such as a simple legged robot walking gait or more complex machine evolution of a robot body part. Stanford University's John Koza, inventor of Genetic Programming (GP), offers a comprehensive GP website.

In the simple case, the script may run directly on the hardware robot until the GA achieves optimum performance. The complex case may run the script repeatedly entirely on the software robot computer simulation until optimum results are achieved, at which point the final script is downloaded to the hardware robot. A typical application is running a Genetic Algorithm on a working model robot simulator to evolve optimum movement and behavior.

Artificial Intelligence Resources 

AI Categories Information Compendium

About Beginner's Resources

PC AI magazine 
(1) For new technology, see list in rightmost column where it reads:
"PC AI Is Growing!...Watch this site for more information on these new Artificial Intelligence topics"; 
(2) For existing technology, page down to table that reads "Watch this sites for the addition of new AI Categories...Artificial Intelligence Categories...AI Languages")

AI  "off-the-shelf" applications: Genetic Algorithm / Neural Net Software

low-cost wireless  Humanoid toy prototyping  system

Dr. Robot (from SFRSA announcement)

Multi-Robot Distributed Data Network

SFRSA "Robots!" report ("Britainís Kevin of tiny, insect brain power robots...")

MASSIVE (Artificial Life based, Particle system driven, Agent software)
Popular Science Review ("Lord of the Rings" battle scenes)

Advanced Genetic Algorithm work

James Martin "Computers Will Save Us" article  (Note:  do a Find  or scroll down to where it reads "The engine of this transformation...alien intelligence...using genetic algorithms...")
James Martin "After the Internet: Alien Intelligence" book

Genetic Programming (Inventor of Genetic Programming (GP), Stanford University's John Koza's comprehensive GP website)

"Evolving Virtual Creatures" Genetic Algorithm Demo (Scientific American Frontiers "Robot Independence" Karl Sims segment) (Note: Click the thumbnail graphic, wait for the "Scientific American...Virage Video" player to appear; the player will take a while to download and start playing; if the page doesn't come up initially, click "Refresh")

DEMO (Dynamical & Evolutionary Machine Organization):
(1) Robotics

(2) Autonomous Evolution of Dynamic Gaits (for Sony AIBO)
(3) "Evolving Robust Gaits with AIBO" (Tech Pub.)
(4) "Autonomous Evolution of Gaits with the Sony Quadruped Robot" (Tech Pub.)

(5) Automatic Design and Manufacture of Robotic Lifeforms
The Golem Project  (Genetically Organized Lifelike Electro Mechanics)

Robot Kitten Case Study

ATR HIP (Kyoto, Japan) / Genobyte's CAM-Brain Machine (CBM) driven Robot Kitten Robokoneko. Some salient quotes from Genobyte & Robokoneko-related sites offer the following exploration of the attempt to create kitten-like behavior in a robot:

"The long term aim of the CAM-Brain Machine (CBM) Project is to build...artificial brain-like systems formed by modular neural networks...(the)... brain will be used to control the behaviors of a kitten robot that is called "Robokoneko" (robot kitten) in Japanese. The Japanese name for the robot originated at ATR HIP (Kyoto, Japan), where the project was started...

"(To create the Brain)...Neural network circuits are based on compartmental modeling on a substrate of 3D cellular automata: the branching dendrites and axons, as well as the soma, are made up from hundreds of tiny compartments (cellular automata cells)...The neural modules are evolved, not engineered, using Genetic Algorithm (GA). Evolutionary process is implemented at electronic speeds directly in silicon -- fine-grain FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays), such as Xilinx's XC6264 FPGA...The topology of the neural module is encoded in a "chromosome", which guides the process of embryonic growth to produce a neural module...Each chromosome is a configuration bitstring loadable into FPGA configuration memory to define logical functions and wiring of the circuit. In order to evolve a circuit for a specific task, a population of competing circuits is run over generations, starting at random, each new generation inheriting characteristics of the relatively fitter parents via recombination and mutation of their chromosomes...The process is guided by a genetic algorithm which operates on a population of circuit chromosomes...Compartmental models of complex neural circuits are embryonically grown and evaluated completely in hardware in microseconds, making it possible to complete a GA run (i.e. tens of thousands of circuit growths and evaluations (fitness measurements) in a matter of a few seconds...Tens of thousands of evolved neural modules with up to 75 million neurons can be assembled into large artificial brain-like architectures. Each neuron in the brain, made up by hundreds to thousands of individual compartments is stored in a large (1.2 GByte) distributed memory, and updated by specialized electronic hardware hundreds of times per second, which is sufficient for real time control of advanced robots... "

"(To invoke the)...Evolution of Robokoneko motions...Robokoneko is initially simulated in software, using the physical reality simulation tool Working Model 3D from MSC Working Knowledge, Inc...which supports a full range of physical phenomena, including, mechanical dimensions, weight, distribution of mass, motor types, torque, positioning, friction in joints and the ground, dynamic and static loads, gravity, moments of inertia, spring elasticity and loading, collision and proximity detection. etc....(the simulator is)...controlled via OLE Automation link by the Robot Simulator software package developed at Genobyte, which serves as an interface between CBM and Robokoneko...

"An exchange of signals between...CBM...and the Robokoneko model will be enabled using a Windows NT 4.0 software application which will work within Working Model 3D. This software application will provide a set of user tools to specify and evaluate fitnesses of the simulated robot's behaviors during evolution runs of the CBM...The evolutionary approach (genetic algorithm) to developing motion behaviors of the robot requires tens of thousands of iterations to evolve simple motions of walking, turning, sitting down, etc. A real hardware robot would not be sufficiently reliable for this task.

"Simulator software also allows automatic measurement and fitness evaluation of each of the thousands of iterations without human intervention, which would have been the case for a physical hardware robot. Ultimately, after initial motion behaviors are evolved, a hardware robot will be built with vision, hearing and other systems, interfaced to and controlled directly by CAM-Brain Machine's evolved neural modules. Because physical reality software simulation speed is considerably lower than CBM speed, an array of personal computers on a local area network would evaluate one kitten each out of a population of kittens to speed up the evolution."

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Copyright © 2003 San Francisco Robotics Society of America
Last modified: Feb 14 , 2003