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My pathway to robotics

September 25, 2013

My name is Jaidyn Edwards. I am eighteen years old and live in South Australia. For me, being interested in robotics was part of an evolutionary process built upon a few core interests I had as a child.

My interest in mechanical things came about from the age of five. I distinctly remember carrying around a little sketchbook with a pencil everywhere I went. Whenever I had an idea for something, I would draw a picture in a page of the book, maybe writing a word or two on what it was. Most of the time these ideas were Rube Goldberg machines designed to do mundane tasks like watering plants or making hot drinks. As I got older and played around more with LEGO Technic, the complexity of these machines and the information I’d write about them increased. By the age of eight I was starting to become more interested in electronics. I loved designing mechanical machines, and with electronics I could make the machines I was designing much more complicated. I began to pull apart my toys due to an insatiable curiosity to see how they worked. My knowledge, of course, was very basic – the only electronic parts I knew of were the ones with a visual function, such as a DC motor or an LED. Even the sketchbooks were getting an electronic overhaul; I remember a few of them had the LCD clock faces on the front cover that I pulled out of my wrist watches.

By the age of ten, the designs I was drawing in my sketchbook were more product designs. I designed phones, watches, cars, computers and even game consoles. The designs had all the key components diagrammed and labelled with labels like ‘CD reader’ and ‘Big board’ (Motherboard). By this stage the designing process became a key interest as I spent more time trying to make the designs look good so that I could show others my work.

I think the step between machines and product designs to robots was due to two key things that were happening during that time. The Star Wars episodes 1-3 were released during my early childhood and, when I was old enough, we hired the DVDs. I was instantly hooked and loved the idea of C3PO. The fact that Anakin made C3PO in order to help his mother specifically seemed to target me, it was like a sign that I needed to do the same.

The other reason I became interested in robotics was actually to do with my cousin. Every Thursday night I would go to his house and play computer games with him. One night I went there and he had this really cool game called Robot Arena 2, in which you design battle bots. The game let you customize everything from the body shape to the internal components and the weapons you used. I spent hours playing this game and absolutely loved it.

I borrowed all the books in my school library that had anything to do with robots (there weren’t many) and started to design robots.

At the age of fourteen my parents bought me the Lego Mindstorms NXT. The NXT was a Lego kit that let you build and program your own robot. I played with it for around two years and had great fun with it, but soon my hobby was going to take a turn for the worse.

I was in high school now and things were getting tough. I was starting to get really stressed at school and began to play video games as a release. Video games quickly took over my life. I would get home from school at 4PM and jump onto my computer to play. I would only get off for tea around 7PM and then get straight back on until I had to go to bed. It was a poisonous cycle and I regret those years of my life as I felt like I achieved nothing. My video game addiction meant I didn’t do any homework and spent no time revising what we covered in class. My grades began to slip and my gaming habit only became worse.

The cycle was only broken when it came to crunch time, Year 12, the final year of high school. I realised what I had gotten myself into and was determined to make it stop. I put my head down and worked like I never had before. My grades picked up dramatically in all subjects but Math. I studied every night and even finished assignments early. Sadly it was too late for Math, I was never good at it when I was young and the period of not doing homework absolutely destroyed any understanding I had on the subject.

During the mid-year break I wanted a new hobby, a hobby that would not only be something challenging like computer games, but also something that would actually benefit me. I remembered how much fun I had designing and making robots and decided it was time to go back to that.

I went online to research other ways I could make robots other than using Lego, that was when I heard of this thing called an Arduino. I didn’t really understand what it was but I bought one called an Arduino Uno. When it arrived in the post I looked up tutorials to see how I could get it to do things.

July 18 2012 I uploaded my first video to YouTube on Arduino. It wasn’t my first creation, but it was the first one that I had recorded. I recorded it on my phone and just uploaded it straight to YouTube. I had uploaded previous videos before on YouTube and thought it would be cool to show off what I had made.

From that point on I recorded all of my creations and uploaded them to YouTube, each time writing a little about them on my blog.

First I covered all the basics, such as making sounds, lighting LEDs in patterns and detecting light changes. When I had used up all the components that came in my starter kit I researched ways to make things move with the Arduino. I found these things called servos and read they were easy to use so I went on Ebay and bought a few of them cheap from Hong Kong. Once I had worked out how to use them I made my first little bot. It was nothing complex and didn’t even have any autonomous capabilities. The robot simply moved the servos to certain positions to make the robot hop like a frog. Money was scarce so I made things out of whatever I could. The body was made of cardboard and the legs were the servo arms with heat shrink over the top to add grip.

I had experience with programming before and I was pretty good at computer software, so once I understood how I could make robots with the Arduino, I began to make them smarter and more complicated.

I became interested in program in particular called GlovePIE. GlovePIE is a program that allows you to program gamepads to act as a keyboard and mouse. I wrote a code that allowed me to have full control of my computer by simply talking, I called it JARVIS.

After programming JARVIS I realised that I could use voice recognition to control the Arduino. To test this theory I made a humanoid robot that was able to express emotions and communicate.

I also learned how to use infrared commands and turned my Arduino into a voice controlled TV remote.

It had only been two months but I absolutely loved making things with Arduino and couldn’t stop. Every time I wanted to learn something new I researched for hours on how to do it and watched so many YouTube videos I used up our internet allowance. I went from controlling a remote control car with my iPhone, to making a webcam that tracked my every movement.

My creations were becoming more and more complicated and the views my videos were getting was increasing. I was getting asked so many questions a day I decided I would start doing tutorials. I was getting more comfortable with YouTube as the response to my creations was positive. I kept making tutorials covering all the basic things you needed to make robots with Arduino.

My robots were starting to get very complicated and had various autonomous capabilities. My friend from school had a big box full of old robot kit parts that he had collected as part of a magazine series, he knew I was interested in robotics so he kindly gave me all the parts. I salvaged everything and turned the brain of the bot into an Arduino.

I began to understand more about the electronics inside robots and my knack for software proved invaluable in my first big robot project.

I had five tutorials released by this stage and they were becoming very popular, with thousands of views. My old physics teacher, who I am good friends with, suggested I come into school and teach the students about robotics. I loved the idea and since then I have been volunteering every Friday during their lunchtime to teach the students about robotics and programming.

I kept making robots and developing new skills. My videos were getting a lot of views now and I had just over five hundred subscribers. I was now recording everything I did, whether it was about robots, making things to help with videos or just me going out to conventions.

I thought it was time now to start making videos focused purely on making robots. I made several videos on the matter and three Instructables on three different bots, Ben, James and Yogy. I realised now that people were really starting to like my creations as my bots had started to win me prizes.

Yogy the yoghurt-tub robot!

After spending a semester at the University of South Australia, studying a bachelor of Mechatronic Engineering, I decided to take a one year deferment. I choose to do this for several reasons. The first major reason was the job prospects. We’d often have people from the field come into lectures and talk with us about what they do. The one thing that I hated about what they all said was that none of them were hands on, they all sat behind a desk and worked for the ‘big man’. As I spent more time volunteering at the school I realized that perhaps teaching is the job for me. I will always love making robots, but sometimes I feel like sitting behind the desk just isn’t for me. Teaching seems to bring my love for robots and the enjoyment I get out of teaching together.

I now have over one thousand subscribers on YouTube and am starting to make of money off of it. Recently, a publishing agent contacted me asking whether I would be interested in producing a video course for them on the subject of ‘Making Arduino Powered Robots’. I agreed to their offer and am working with them now to produce the course.­

In the next few weeks I will make the transition from not knowing what to do with my life, to turning my forever interest in robotics into a job. I am going to be an author and also be helping a robotics kit creator in writing a teaching curriculum and helping with instructional videos for his kits. I feel like this is the start of a lifetime journey and I can’t wait to see where robotics takes me.

I don’t know where I am going, but I feel like I am surfing the wave of opportunities. I hope one day to be producing my own kits or perhaps working with the likes of MAKE promoting robotics for kids.

I would also like to mention one last thing. Without the people on I probably wouldn’t be where I am now. They are the people who have stood behind me, giving me support and help when I needed it, and have been my slingshot into having a robotics-based career. If you are interested in making your first robot, or have been making robots for a while, go to their site and join. LetsMakeRobots has a great community for both beginners and veterans alike, they have a step by step instructional on how to make your first bot and you can even show off your robotics projects.

I hope you can draw similarities between my story and yours. Remember, stories are ongoing and the more effort you put in, the better your story will be.

Jaidyn Edwards .. read more

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