Innovating On A Budget

Based on numerous emails from readers, one of the frustrations of learning about the latest developments in robotics is the cost involved in keeping up with the leading edge of innovation. Replicating, for example — the latest micro-flying robot — can cost thousands of dollars and weeks to months of effort — assuming you can find or fabricate the parts. So what’s the solution to innovating upon the latest robotic discovery without breaking the bank? I’ve found several strategies invaluable in pursing innovation on a budget, especially if you’re working alone.

The first and most important strategy is to focus. Define exactly what technology or aspect of robotics that you’re interested in exploring and developing. Take one of the new remote-controlled micro-air vehicles with onboard video. Realize that it’s impractical to build one from scratch and focus on one or perhaps even two aspects of the technology.

You could focus on micro-miniature robotics platforms, ultra-lightweight, high-capacity batteries, ultra-miniature video capture, or more efficient, insect-like flight, among other areas.

With your focus defined, you’ll be more likely to actually achieve your goal. You’ll also avoid the common pitfall of getting bogged down in a dead-end because of unexpected costs or component limitations.

The second strategy is to approximate — and not get lost in trying to exactly replicate — the target technology. Even if your focus is insect-sized flying robots, you needn’t constrain yourself to a life-sized wingspan. Start with a more reasonable platform with a 12” wingspan that will allow you to use larger, heavier, and much more affordable motors, batteries, and onboard control electronics. By the time you finish a 12” flying robot, you’ll no doubt have made several personal discoveries and have a much better idea of what’s really involved in going for a scaled down version of the robot.

The third cost- and sanity-saving strategy is to repurpose when possible. Building any robot from the ground up using a piece-by-piece approach is expensive. Assuming you can locate vendors that will ship in single item quantities, you’ll spend a fortune in postage and handling fees.

For example, suppose you want to manipulate the control surfaces of your flying robot with one of the new micro-miniature quartz motors. You could spend $800 or more for a “developers kit” from DigiKey (www.digikey.com), or go to eBay and pick up a second-hand camera that uses one of the motors to control an automatic, retractable lens cover. It’s amazing what you can find in the way of repurposable robot parts in a $75, second-hand digital camera.

Case in point: Several readers wrote in requesting information on how they could replicate the three gram, 10 cm wingspan DelFly Micro, developed by engineers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands (home.tudelft.nl). A few minutes on the web revealed the micro-air vehicle uses a one gram battery to stay aloft for three minutes; it has a top speed of five meters/second; and the 0.5 gram video camera is designed for a surgical endoscope.

Let’s assume your focus is how to handle live video from a micro-air vehicle. You’ll need a suitable camera. However, micro-miniature endoscope cameras are expensive — expect to pay $5,000 or more for single quantity cameras. A quick search on eBay revealed what looked like a suitable camera/endoscope assembly for $250. Not inexpensive, and a risky purchase without a schematic, but much cheaper than $5,000 for a new camera with documentation.

Again, if you accept an approximation — a slightly heavier, mass-produced camera sold for surveillance work — you’ll save hundreds. You might find it sufficiently challenging — and rewarding — to extract one of the ubiquitous $50 mini-surveillance video cameras from its plastic housing and mount it in a lighter, more compact structure.

Furthermore, unless you want to bother with the platform and control infrastructure, consider purchasing a ready-made plane, helicopter, or other flying vehicle from Tower Hobbies (www.towerhobbies.com) or even RadioShack. Foam and plastic, remote-controlled planes, birds, and helicopters can be had for less than $100 — far less than you’d spend creating a flying platform from scratch.

On the other hand, if your focus is creating a more efficient flying platform, then by all means take out the balsa wood and Styrofoam. Repurpose the camera and control electronics from some other craft.

Most importantly, when you’ve succeeded and developed your robot or enabling technology, document your journey and share it with your fellow readers.  SV


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