Remember your first toy kit with which you built a motor-run fan or lit a bulb using pencil cell batteries? Robotic kits are advanced versions of those toy kits. Whether you are a beginner, advanced user or a hobbyist, if you wish to assemble your own robot from a kit there are certain things to keep in mind.
What does a robotic kit consist of?
Robot kits contain all the components required to assemble your own bot. These include electronic components, servo motors, gears, battery, sensors, microcontrollers, mechanical frame or chassis of the robot with plastic and metal parts, etc.
“A standard kit comes with a programmable platform that is the logic processor of the bot, motors and actuators to move the bot, sensors to gather information about surroundings, power supply and PC interface kit to enable programming of the bot via PC. Other specialised kits contain these components in variation,” says Adwait Deshpande, manager-R&D, ThinkLABS.
Some robots are wired. These can be connected to a desktop PC or laptop via USB or serial cable for operation using a set of commands. Others are wireless, operated with a remote or Bluetooth.
Kits can be for educational purposes or for use in industrial applications. The foremost thing is to define the application of the kit. A beginner should obviously start with the basics and not go for an advanced kit.
Deshpande highlights, “Basic kits are closed boxes with focus on structure building and logic building. Here, the aim is to explore the project building part and make the other technical aspects as simple as possible. Advanced kits are usually left open to hack, modify or improvise the circuit. Open access to the kit helps build add-ons and explore possibilities.”
While the basic components of many robotic kits are the same, these differ from basic- to advanced-level kits. “The primary difference between basic and advanced kits is mainly in the features available, fidelity and number of sensors, adaptability for different applications, components used and available documentation,” says Sachitanand Malewar, research scholar at TI DSP Lab, IIT Mumbai, and director (technology), Nex Robotics.
Sudhanshu Sharma, CEO, Techtronics Education, explains, “Basic kits contain building elements usually targeted at a particular design, e.g., an arm. In these kits, the mechanical elements cannot be used to create any design other than the one specified. Programming environments in basic kits are also very simple and cannot be used to create complex programs.”
“In advanced robotic kits, the mechanical elements are generic and can be configured to create any mechanical design. The processor can be expanded to increase memory and computing power. Various generic communication protocols are supported. Sensor interfaces are general and open so that any expansion is possible. The programming environment in advanced kits supports any kind of programming like structured, graphical and cross-compilers,” he adds.
Talking about educational kits, Jayakrishnan T., director (India), Energid Technologies (Robotics & Machine Vision), says, “There are kits available right from school level (Legos) through postgraduate level (like Actin and Cyton from Energid). The package varies in complexity and hence is useful for different academic levels.”
“The lowest level helps understand the basic concepts of mechanics, working with motors, gears, pulleys and other assemblies. The next level makes use of servo actuators, sensors, control modules and small wheel robots, etc. The higher level deals with flexible hardware, software toolkits for kinematics/coordinated control, machine vision and artificial intelligence algorithms,” he adds.
Indian vs imported kits
There are both made-in-India kits as well as imported kits available in the Indian market. You can order a kit even online after matching your requirements with the offered kit’s specifications.
“Indian robotic kits are generally targeted at specific applications. Imported kits are generic and expandable. Kits like Lego Mindstorms and TETRIX are very high-quality, flexible and expandable,” informs Sudhanshu.
“India was introduced much later to the field of robotics as compared to the developed nations. Even though we are far behind the level that has already been achieved, we are progressing at a fast pace in order to match their level within the next few years,” shares Pradeep Kumar Sharma, director, Robosapiens Technologies.
“The Indian robotics kits are in a nascent stage as compared to imported ones. There is lot to be done in finishing and accuracy,” Ashutosh Agarwal, managing director, Tesca Technologies, says.
However, Malewar differs: “Indian robotics kits have come a long way since last four years. These are now at par with any international platform.”
The price of a robotic kit increases with the level of advancement. Indian robotic kits are thus generally lower priced than imported kits.
Siddharth Dev, CTO & founder, Technido, says, “The price-to-feature ratio is reasonably good for Indian kits but aesthetically they are not as attractive as imported ones. Due to the low scale of production and sales, most manufacturers make aluminium or other metal chassis that have limitations of bending and producing them into attractive forms.”
What’s available in the market?
“There are large varieties of robotic kits available in the market, from small two-wheeled basic robots, intermediate multi-wheeled robots to complex robots such as humanoids and hexapods,” says Malewar.
“Robotic kits are available from different manufacturers. The difference lies in the functionality and quality. There are many robotic kit manufacturers who offer robots that look just like Lego Mindstorms but have reduced functionality and quality. Some robotic kits are sold as programmable bi-pedal robots. But these really have just three to four modes of operation. This defeats the purpose of buying a robotic kit for educational purpose,” cautions Deshpande.
Automation and customisation
There are basically three types of automated robotic kits available:
1. Fully-automatic wherein the system requires only one command and the entire operation is processed under that command
2. Semi-automatic wherein the user has to offer commands to the system after certain levels
3. Manualy-controlled wherein the user has to manually operate the system
The various levels of automation and customisation possible in a robotic kit are specific to the type of robotic kit. Programming facility in a robotic kit is of prime importance. The type of processor used, ability to use a processor of choice, ability to add third-party sensors and accessories enhance the usability and expandability of the kit.
“Any good robotics kit should be highly customisable and expandable. All advanced kits should be expandable with custom-built sensors and actuators. Automation should be completely possible through programming with advanced environments like C and C++,” opines Sudhanshu.
How to select a kit?
As explained earlier, the foremost thing is to define the application of the kit.
“It all depends on the end user and what he wants to do with the kit. For education purpose, the main aspects are the openness of the system, price of the kit and the ecosystem available with it. For research, what’s important is the flexibility the kit gives to change the specifications of the robot for various applications, product development or R&D using off-the-shelf components,” says Fahad Azad, managing partner, Robosoft Systems India.
Deshpande opines, “An ideal hobby kit would be a microcontroller development board with schematics, standard sensors, reliable wireless modules, direct-current motors with encoders and a USB interface. The development board really helps to interface many different kinds of peripherals that can be developed on your own.”
“If you plan to use the kit for outdoor purpose, make sure that it is hermetically sealed to be dust- and water-proof. For rough terrains or climbing purpose, the robot should ideally use tracks and not wheels,” Col. N.C. Pande (Retd), joint director-training, EFY TechCenter.
“Also, check whether the kit comes with a well-documented manual or a training program. Make sure that the kit is expandable so that you can keep developing more and more complex projects,” he adds.
Specifications play a very important role. So make sure you have the right specifications.
Dr Kavi Arya, associate professor, CSE department, IIT-Bombay, highlights, “In a robotic kit for students, ruggedness, capability of interfacing with a wide variety of hardware, good software support in terms of language and tool and community support are important points to consider. For instance, check whether it can be programmed using C (are integrated development environments available), has been ported to programming environments such as that provided by Microsoft’s Robotic Studio, or is compatible with Open Source environments such as Player/Stage?”
Quality of the kit is also a major concern. “Quality applies to all the components, beginning with the motors. Many companies sell gear motors with plastic gear box, which basically fails to perform. Also, a lot of Chinese stuff is available in the market,” says Amar Gala, partner, Mac-Net Technology.
“Go for a kit that is modular, reconfigurable and reusable for different applications. Going for low cost would necessitate compromising on the quality or functionality for reducing the initial expense. The additional expense can be recovered over multiple use of the kit,” suggests Jayakrishnan.
“If cost is the most critical factor, it is better to go for raw spare parts and build it from scratch for a limited functionality. This at least will help one to ensure quality at a lower cost,” he adds.
“A good robotic kit should grow with the user’s knowledge and experience. In the stage of basic experiments, you should be able to perform simple experiments like line followers and obstacle avoiders. In intermediate stage, you should be able to add more advanced microcontrollers and communication modules. In advanced stage, you should be able to add hardware platforms that support real-time operating systems over which you can have image processing, path planning, etc,” suggests Dev.
Most kits come with a warranty. High-valued kits generally provide full warranty against manufacturing defects and service warranty against wear and tear over usage. In case of software, one-year free upgrade can be considered as a standard policy.
“In a nutshell, the various factors to keep in mind are high quality of mechanical elements, customisable processing elements, expandability through open interfaces, expandable design, i.e., ability to reuse design from simple to complex, supported multiple communication protocols, low power requirements, ease of mechanical construction and easy chaining of processing elements to increase the computing power,” Sudhanshu sums up.
The author is an assistant editor at EFY