In Search Of A Do-It-Yourself Wall-E

WALL-E in Disney's presentation of Pixar's Wall-E - 2008 Disney/Pixar

This story was written by CNET's Daniel Terdiman

A lot of people adored Pixar Animation Studios' 2008 dystopian robots-in-love story, "Wall-E." But one loosely connected organization can probably lay claim to being the biggest, or at least the most dedicated, group of fans.

These are the 16,000 members of the Wall-E Builders Group, an Internet-organized collection of do-it-yourselfers who have each set out to create a live version of one of the Academy Award-winning film's fictional robots.

"There (are) tons of builders who are very interested in building Wall-E," said Matt Ebisu, the 18-year-old Cupertino, Calif., college student who is the public representative of the group. "So far, we've had several different versions completed. They vary in design, but pretty much everyone (in the group) is dedicated to building their own Wall-E, or at least finding out how to build their own Wall-E."

Most Wall-E builders, located around the world, have not met in person. Some of them, however, will be coming together to show off their work and spread the gospel of Wall-E building at this weekend's Maker Faire festival in San Mateo, Calif.

Among the DIY robotics set, they'll hardly be alone in showcasing their wares to the 80,000-plus people expected to crowd into the San Mateo Fairgrounds for the fourth annual festival. According to Maker Faire organizer Sherry Huss, robots and rockets will be the most represented category of DIY creations, and there will be a robotics pavilion where teenage boys of all ages, young girls, real grown-ups, and everyone in between can get their robot on.

" In general, everything DIY is exploding right now," Huss said. With a variety of robotics kits available, "people are dabbling a lot more in it. A robot doesn't have to be a representation of a human, but I think there (are) a lot of things happening in this field right now."

Indeed, at Maker Faire alone, there are expected to be no fewer than 24 robotics DIYers, both individuals and groups, whose projects range from Wall-E builders, to a giant LED-studded giraffe that walks, to a set of semiautonomous spherical orbs, to fire-belching machines, to a solar-powered electric chariot.

Make magazine, from which Maker Faire manifested, is devoting its August issue to DIY robotics. On the cover, according to Huss and Gareth Branwyn, an editor overseeing the issue, will be Chris Anderson, Wired magazine editor in chief (and DIY robotics megafan), proudly showing off his autonomously navigating flying drone.

But lest you conclude that Maker Faire and Make magazine are the only venues for the world of DIY robotics, think again.

Of course, not everyone agrees on where (or when) the concept of DIY robotics was conceived. To some, it's an idea that's been around for decades. To others, we may not even be there yet.

According to Branwyn, the "father" of hobby robotics is thought by many to be a man named Gordon McComb who, in 1987, published a book called "Robot Builder's Bonanza" and who today is still writing books and a column for Servo magazine, as well as running an online robots store. "I believe it was the first book of its kind," said Branwyn. "He's a legend in hobby robotics."

But to David Calkins, one of the lead organizers of the immensely popular RoboGames festivals, which pit fighting robots against each other in spark-inducing nuts-and bolts death matches, the history dates at least as far back as the work of mechanical and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla, who died in 1943. Calkins said the history may even go back much further, if one counts French, Swiss, and Japanese automotons. "It's very subjective, as to what a 'starting point' would be," Calkins said.

Others would say that everything that has happened with hobby robotics until now has all actually been prologue to what is really a brand-new field.

" I would say it still hasn't 'started,' until more people with a casual interest can make robots," said Phillip Torrone, a senior editor at Make magazine. "We're just starting to get to that point. So DIY robotics might be starting exactly...now."

Still, there's no doubt that individual robotics projects are quickly becoming mainstream. When the founder of the Wall-E Builders Group, who goes by the name Jawa Lunk, first went online for help in crafting his own moving, trash-compacting version of Wall-E, for example, group representative Ebisu said Lunk discovered thousands of like-minded individuals ready to work on the same task.

Inspired by the large and well-documented community of DIY R2-D2 builders, the Wall-E builders are still in the early stages of their work, and so far, there are few finished projects. Thousands of members support each other on the community's online forums, as they try to solve sticky problems.

" A typical question," Ebisu said, "is, 'How does Wall-E fold up and have enough space to compact (garbage) cubes? What would happen?' So different builders would come and share different ideas and say, 'I think that Wall-E has a 2-by-2-square-foot volume to fit cubes inside, and maybe there's an extra foot to fit all his arms and tread inside.' And another builder might say, 'Add space here, and make it a little wider, and we'd definitely have room inside.'"

Not all Wall-Es and R2-D2s and drones

While projects like autonomously navigating flying drones and homemade Wall-Es may get the glory, there is almost no limit to the number of different DIY robotics projects these days. And that explosion is a fairly new phenomenon due, in large part, to the emergence of low-cost components, easy-to-build kits, and easy, solder-free microcontrollers.

To Calkins, it's worth noting that among robotics enthusiasts, there's currently a schism over what constitutes DIY and even what constitutes a robot.

For example, he said, some people argue that kit-made robots don't count as do-it-yourself, while others do. Similarly, some wonder at what point a remote-controlled car becomes a robot.

It boils down, Calkins said, to a bit of the old Supreme Court "I know it when I see it" judgment call.

Still, Calkins said there's no question that, regardless of how it's defined, DIY robotics is taking off like never before.

For example, he pointed to a RoboGames event known as RoboMagellan, which he said is basically the DIY robotics version of the DARPA Grand Challenge. In a RoboMagellan match, small, GPS-equipped robots must "navigate from a starting point to an ending point and are scored on time required to complete the course with opportunities to (reduce) the score based on contacting intermediate points."

Calkins, who, in addition to his RoboGames duties, also organizes Roboexotica, a festival of cocktail-serving robots, pointed to the proliferation of things like Lego Mindstorms robots, the humanoidesque Robonova, and Futaba control systems, all of which offer hobbyists the ability to program their DIY robot of choice.

But clearly, one of the biggest factors behind the DIY robotics revolution is the emergence of easy-to-use, solderless microcontrollers such as Arduino, "an open-source electronics-prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software."

One person taking advantage of the popularity of Arduino is Make magazine's Torrone, a longtime DIYer who often works on projects of his own.

"Robotics is too hard for everyone, and it costs a lot, but a lot of people are doing Arduino, so I am working on a solderless robot," Torrone explained. "It's servos, rubber-banded to a battery pack, rubber-banded to an Arduino, and a wire as the front 'wheel.' In 10 minutes, anyone will be able to make a light-seeking robot."

Torrone said the idea is to make the robot--which can be made to be "bump"-aware, or to seek hot or cold temperatures, or, with a pen or pencil strapped on, to be a "drawbot"--available as a low-cost kit (about $70) with which people can make quick progress.

"It's like when you get an iPhone," he said. "In the first 10 minutes, you can do cool stuff. I want folks to feel the same in the first 10 minutes (they're working on) robotics. The idea is, if you can get someone to have success right away, they'll want to keep doing more."

Torrone, of course, knows of what he speaks. He has been tinkering with and hacking technology for years--sometimes alone, sometimes with others. In 2006, for example, he and fellow hardware hacker Limor Fried rigged up a Roomba vacuum cleaner to look like a Frogger frog and then sent it scurrying back and forth, as in the classic video game, across the streets of downtown Austin, Texas during the South by Southwest Interactive festival.

But Torrone also has ever-evolving tastes, and one of his favorite trends is robotic gardening. One example is a robot called Fast Planting, which basically runs its own small garden, from planting the seeds to watering.

"It's just a trend I'm seeing," Torrone said. "In the latest (issue of) Make, we have a garduino (garden arduino) to water plants...I think people who make things want to garden, but it's a lot of work. So they are making robots to do it. A lot of engineers want problems to solve, and this is a fun one...Most robotics projects are either war-related or, well, war-related. So I think this is the victory garden for robot hobbyists."


By Daniel Terdiman
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