Since November 2010 Annika O’Brien, the founder of the L.A. Robotics Club, has worked with enthusiasts interested in amateur robotics. She founded the club with the intention of finding people who wanted to collaborate on projects together, and, eventually, even found herself teaching classes at the Los Angeles hackerspace, primarily in Arduino. She also began working with local high schools as part of a community outreach initiative.
O’Brien wanted to create a low-cost platform for building small robots that was flexible enough to work with different form factors, but powerful enough to drive sensors, motors, and relays.
“The club needed cheap boards that were extensible, and could be used as a platform for our advanced projects, too,” O’Brien says. “We decided that making our own would be cheaper and more effective than buying one off the shelf. It was also a great experiment to see if others shared our vision.”
With this in mind, she turned to fellow makers Rob Newport and Bryan Chan who, over the course of a year, designed an ultra-low cost ($5) development platform for micro-robotics that can be easily assembled with through-hole components and a soldering iron. It wasn’t a particularly difficult task for the pair, but it required some scrutiny to keep the costs down and remove non-critical components. The kit needed to be rugged and durable enough for real world applications like rockets, aquatics, and competitive robots, and it needed to be small and lightweight enough to be used in aerial vehicles.
“Keeping costs down has been the single hardest [engineering challenge],” O’Brien says. “It’s one thing to get a circuit right, but it’s another thing to make sure it’s cost-efficient.”
The new board, which is roughly the same size as a pack of gum, can regulate power from USB power or a battery pack. It has six easily accessible ADC ports for analog input, a single digital port, LED access, and an ATMEL ATMEGA328 chip compatible with Arduino IDE. The microprocessor should be easily swapped out with others for field upgrades or if the chip gets fried.
The six analog I/O pins are located on the bottom row at the far side of the board and can be set as INPUT or OUTPUT using pinMode, for example: pinMode(ledPin, OUTPUT).
After the prototype was completed, O’Brien turned to crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter.com with a simple $1,000 goal to help create this platform for future robotics club projects that the team of hackers would document and make open source for everyone to share.
With two days remaining, O’Brien has raised more than $18,000 dollars from more than 550 backers.
If you’re local to the Los Angeles area, you can back the project for as little as $5 and pick up your assembled board at the next club meeting. The board does not come with the USB attachment that is necessary to communicate with USB FTDI boards (purchased separately), but you could shore up the part by backing the project at the $10 level.
Most project backers seem more interested in digging a bit deeper into their wallets to include shipping ($15 level), or score one of three kits:
- The Field Kit ($28 level) includes three assemble boards, one FTDI USB breakout connector, and battery connectors.
- The Swarm-bot Robotics Kit ($40) includes five assembled boards, one FTDI USB breakout connector, photoresistor sensors, piezo speakers, and integration instructions for use in independent and autonomous swarm-bots.
- The Classroom Kit ($75 level) includes ten clone boards, two USB boards, LEDs, photoresistors, 1K resistors, piezo speakers, and instructions for five possible applications.
At first, the L.A. Robotics group was thrilled at the project’s success when one simple fact reared its odd-shaped head. Who is going to mail all of these kits out? Since the club consists entirely of volunteers, it’s not like O’Brien can pull a few cashiers from the floor to pack and ship 500 kits. If you’re a backer, it’s likely that your kit will be shipped to you from the same people that helped design it — it wouldn’t be a grass-roots effort without design collaborators wearing multiple hats.
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For now, O’Brien is figuring out logistics. The way she envisions it, her living room is likely to resemble an Amazon processing factory for a week, but none of this would be possible without Kickstarter — especially when it comes to the volumes required to make supplier pricing reasonable.
“Just like Apple’s App Store and Android’s Marketplace, Kickstarter is doing the same thing for indie hardware developers,” O’Brien says. “Now, someone fresh out of college doesn’t have to struggle to find a job, they can just take a chance on a great idea, and join in the entrepreneurial success that software developers have seen for a decade now.”