Building on the Fundamentals

by Bryan Bergeron, Editor
February 2010

If you pick up a copy of the IEEE Transactions on Robotics, the first thing you’ll likely notice is the relative abundance of mathematics, relative to the predominance of prose and photos in SERVO. This difference reflects the goals of the readership of each publication. An enthusiast doesn’t need to know the stress on the gear train within a servo as long as the unit as a whole will handle a particular load. For an engineer designing a servo mechanism, however, these details matter. Moreover, the nature and magnitude of the stress on the gear train is most completely and unambiguously expressed in mathematical terms.

The reason for comparing the two publications is that they represent different ends of the spectrum of robotics. You may be content with kit building and working with pre-architected robots. On the other hand, you may have your sights set on a career designing new robotics platforms, sensors, and intelligent computing systems. If the latter case describes you, then you’ll need to study the fundamentals of robotics, from statics and dynamics to strength of materials and biomechanics – either in a formal college program or on your own.

If you opt for a traditional university education, then you’ll probably have to enroll in an electrical engineering or mechanical engineering program and fill your electives with robotics-related courses. There are very few true undergraduate robotics engineering programs in the world. For example, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (http://www.wpi.edu) established the first bachelor’s degree program in robotics in 2006.

Going it alone is possible, but only if you have discipline and time to study. And there’s really no such thing as going it alone. You’ll have to find a mentor with similar interests to get the most out of your studies. There’s nothing as frustrating as studying with the nagging feeling that if you only had a real teacher, you’d progress more rapidly.

Regardless of your path, you can and should start working on the fundamentals now. The most fundamental building block in robotics is mathematics — algebra, trigonometry, statistics, differential equations, and calculus. There’s an abundance of texts on Amazon and elsewhere. If you’re more at home with online computer-aided instruction and serious games for learning math concepts, then there are a number of free sites on the web, including Wolfram MathWorld (mathworldcom.wolfram) and Math.com (http://www.math.com).

If your eyes automatically glaze over at the sight of a math textbook, consider picking up a copy of The Manga Guide to Calculus, published by No Starch Press (http://www.nostarch.com), 2009. Other than reading from front to back and depicting unadventurous costumes, the book resembles every other Japanese manga book marketed in the US. The paperback isn’t exhaustive, but it provides a painless introduction to calculus within the context of a story told in comics. Once you’ve mastered the book, you can move on to more traditional treatments.

By the way, No Starch Press also offers a manga treatment of electricity, The Manga Guide to Electricity, which is a fun introduction to electricity for high school level students. It’s appropriate for a budding roboticist who may be mechanically talented but has yet to grapple with basic concepts such as Ohm’s Law.

Good luck on your path.  SV

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