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 buttblue.jpg (750 bytes) Want to Build a Robot?
Study Albert, a home-built robot with a laptop brain, and read about some popular robot kits!

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Meet an amazing home robot that mixes the best of two worlds.
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Despite my distaste for obligatory "vanity" pages by website authors, I sometimes find them rather interesting. I hope you find something of interest in this one. 

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Here I am talking about robots at Robothon '99

My name is John Cutter, and I'm a professional Game Designer and Producer.  I've been making computer games for nearly 15 years and have over 50 titles listed on my resume, including 5 that made it to Computer Gaming World's list of the "Top 150 Computer Games of All Time".  I'm probably best known for my work at Cinemaware, and for a role-playing game I Designed and Produced for Dynamix called Betrayal at Krondor. Here's an article that was written about one of my games.  

I've also been a disc jockey, and even a semi-professional stand up comedian.  I'm married and have a beautiful wife and 10 year old daughter.

Oh, and I love robots!

I've been a robot enthusiast for as long as I can remember.  I'm not sure where the passion comes from, but it probably goes back to my childhood.  I used to dream of having a laboratory in my room, and of inventing a life-like robot that could make my bed and pick up my dirty clothes.  Unfortunately, I'm not particularly adept mechanically, so my early attempts at robot construction never really went anywhere.   I mean that literally... I don't think any of them ever moved.  Not an inch.   <sigh>

My First Robot
Way back in 1984, I came across an advertisement for a Hero Jr. and I was in heaven.  I contacted a sales representative at Heath and several weeks later I talked him into selling me one of their pre-built demo units.  It was fantastic!  My wife and I named him "Isaac" (after Isaac Asimov, who authored the now famous Three Laws of Robotics), and he was an active member of our family for several years. 

His behavior was fairly limited and predictable, and I never figured out a way to program him, so I eventually lost interest and Isaac was relegated to a dusty corner of my office.  He's sitting there as I write this.



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A picture of Isaac, my first robot.  (Hero Jr.)

Looking for a New Robot
This past Christmas (1998) my wife bought me a Lego Mindstorms set, and my passion for robots was rekindled.  I knew immediately that I wanted to buy another robot, and I was tremendously excited to think about the advancements that must have taken place in the fifteen years since I left the hobby.

I was in for a major surprise.

My Internet search for a next generation Hero Jr., lead me first to Gecko System's "Carebot".  Fifteen years ago I paid $250.00 for my Hero Jr., it included a speech synthesizer, sonar system, sound sensor, light sensor, and a PIR detector.  The Carebot costs close to TEN TIMES that amount, and at the present time has only a high ping rate sonar.  Unlike Isaac, it can be controlled by a PC using RF (radio frequency) modems.  Still, I was underwhelmed.

Next, I looked at the Cye robot from Probotics.  It too is controllable using RF modems, and appears to have some excellent software for mapping and navigation.  But Cye doesn't really look like a robot, it has very few sensors, and the price tag is close to $700.00.  Yikes.

I also looked at a used Pioneer 1, an RB5X, the Advanced Whiskers, Nomadic Technologie's Scout II (no longer in production), and a few others.  Of these, the RB5X had the look, size, and features I wanted; but its maximum speed of 4" per second was too slow for some of the applications I wanted to try.  Plus, all of these robots, after adding in the necessary accessories and options would have cost well over the $2000.00 price limit I set for myself.
 
Trilobot, We Hardly Knew Ye...
After several months of intensive research, I realized that only one robot came close to offering the features I wanted in a package anywhere near my budget.  I chose the Trilobot robot from Arrick Robotics.

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The original Albert.  (Trilobot)

With the optional speech synthesizer and radio modems the Trilobot was several hundred dollars over my target price.  It was also a bit smaller and slower than what I originally envisioned.  But on the plus side, it had more sensors than I ever dreamed about, and other cool features, including: a digital compass, a movable head, a laser pointer, a gripper/arm, and more.  

Unfortunately, the Trilobot couldn't move or turn well on our medium pile carpets and thick pads.  After only a week of experimentation, I had to return it. 

Roger Arrick very kindly gave me a full refund. 

Try Try Again
When the Trilobot didn't work out, I almost gave up.  There were no other pre-built robots that offered the features I needed at a price I could afford. 

After doing more Internet research I contacted Zagros Robotics about their Max bases.  AJ Neal, the owner, sells base kits to hobbyists, and for a little extra he will build part or all of the base. (which is the reason I ignored his product during my initial research) -- but after talking to him I found out he would, for an additional charge, assemble one of his kits for me.  

After some debate I decided to have AJ build me a custom 14" x 14" base.  

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The new Albert? (Max base from Zagros Robotics)

EUREKA!
My work with Albert was going pretty well, but I ultimately came to realize that the Max base was not going to allow me to build the home robot I've always dreamed about.  Albert was too large, noisy, and slow to be a good "house" robot, and he would never be completely autonomous due to his inability to find and dock with a charger.  I was also having problems with the encoders, HC11 interrupts, and countless other mechanical and electrical components.

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Cye (photo courtesy Neoforma Design)

As I was having these disheartening revelations I discovered that Probotics was about to release a new version of their Cye robot that responds to handclaps. And after further reading on the website, I learned that a Handy Board interface will soon be available that would allow me to hook up many additional sensors!   The decision about what to do next suddenly became very easy.

 
Cye is the starting platform for a new robot I will call "Cybert".  My plan is to use Cye's hardware with Albert's software to create an autonomous "pet".  When the Handy Board interface becomes available I will add a range finding sensor (sonar or IR), a light sensor or two, possibly a passive infrared sensor (to detect people), and either a text-to-speech board, or a radio receiver (to play synthesized speech broadcast from my PC).

 
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Cybert (photo courtesy Chris Hostetler)