Building robots with my (oldest) son

I have three kids now. Jonas (4.5), Grace (3), and Isaac (3 months). I had to add (oldest) to the title of the post now that there are two boys. Feels weird. Good weird, but weird nonetheless.

My son has expressed interest in a lot of topics lately. Robots, dinosaurs, planets, fish biology, you name it, typical boy stuff in many ways. We went to the ROM a couple months ago to see the dinosaurs. As an adult it was fun going back there and living the experience through my kids’ eyes. One of the first things Jonas noticed when we got there was the Pterodactyl fossils hanging from the ceiling, and my wife captured him, Grace and I all staring up in wonder.

Doing things with my kids not only gives them something to do, but it gives me something to do as well. There are so many activities I have done in the past 4.5 years I wouldn’t have bothered to do if I didn’t have kids. That, in many ways, is the best gift having children has given me; an excuse to be active and view the world with a 4 year-old’s sense of wonder again.

I used to build robots. Lots of robots. It was a hobby habit. I built my first at 8, soldered it myself and everything. Used two motors from some broken toys, cut the base out of plywood with a jig saw, the whole nine. I had built many others over the years, all the way through high school, then I stopped once I entered University. I stopped doing a lot of things once I entered University. I “had” to, I was an adult and paying for my education now. I only really worked on that stuff if I was paid to, which I did when I worked for ESQ, and I won a national award for it. Otherwise, I had to no time to focus on fun, for I had to study and make my investment worth it. Unfortunately this new habit of not investing myself in my other interests stuck a little too well, and it had been years since I last picked up a soldering iron. Until I had kids.

When my son came home from school with a science fair sign-up sheet, I laughed maniacally. I had visions of harvesting Thorium from old camping lanterns and making a breeder reactor, but I decided that I’ll save that idea until he is 10. Besides, Uranium isn’t too healthy for a 4 year-old. So, I asked him if he wanted to participate, and if so, what did he want to do. It was advertized as a science fair and invention convention, which was good for me, because explaining the scientific method to a four year-old seemed like an effort in futility. Don’t get me wrong, kids can be extraordinarily smart, but the whole cause-and-effect thing is something I have always known takes a while to actually sink in. Even then, there are adults out there who still haven’t learned that lesson.

He wanted to build a robot, and build a robot we did, multiple robots, in fact.

Our first robot was from Sparkfun. I picked up two of the Magician Chassis when I was buying a few other things from their site. They looked like really useful, inexpensive robot chassis that’s be perfect for quick and dirty experiments and tests of motors and sensors. I had plans to build both and figure out a way to get them to communicate with one another, much like how bees can communicate the location of flowers. But that is an experiment and blog post for another time. Back to the robots. I love them. They are easy to assemble, easy enough Jonas assembled one and Grace assembled the other. We used it as a test for the larger robot Jonas wanted to build. I hadn’t used the L293 as a motor driver yet, so I wanted something quick and easy to set up to test the motor driver. I also used a Sharp IR sensor for object avoidance.

This robot was super-quick to assemble, worked well enough, and gave me some code to use as a starting point for the main robot we were going to build.

The next robot, Jonas’ robot for the science fair, needed to be bigger. Jonas had a list of desired features, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get him to implement them all in time for the science fair, so I stuck with the plan of building a bigger version of the Magician Chassis. We went with a DFRobot Pirate-4WD Mobile Platform model. We spent a lot of time looking at robot frames online together. I know, we should have built the frame ourselves from scrap, but the benefit of buying something easy to assemble was that Jonas could do it himself. He wanted something that could “climb over stuff”, and this robot chassis has 4 wheel drive. The other features he wants (and we are currently working on) is for the robot to have two claws, and to repeatedly say “I am a robot”.

Having my son assemble things turned out not to be that difficult. His small, nimble fingers could easily do things my big, fat adult-hands could not. Programming the Arduino, however, I had to do myself. He’s barely started reading and writing, I am not going to try to teach him a programming language for another year or two at least. The Science Fair event itself was a bit of a let-down. After all the hard work, he was more interested in socializing with the other kids that his display remained unmanned most of the evening, but playing is what kids are supposed to do. His sister, however, was very engaged with all the other projects she got to see and play with that evening. I have to start planning for her project, I only have two years.

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