What is a Robotics Hackerspace?

Deburring a partWhat do I mean when I say I’m building a robotics hackerspace? From our mission statement, we will use “robotics and creative or artistic projects to inspire and educate.” Robots are cool and they cover a lot of territory so a robotics hackerspace will be able to do just about anything.

First, what is a hacker and a hackerspace? Hack-a-day ran an article a few months ago asking for definitions of hacking. I define a hacker as someone who isn’t afraid to experiment and learn outside of a formal teaching setting and who builds things for the fun of it and as a form of self expression. Hackerspaces.org defined hackerspaces as “community-operated physical places, where people can meet and work on their projects.” Robot Garden will be a community space for people to engage with technology and each other and collaborate, learn and have fun.

Willow Garage PR1, mostly made of wood

Stanford / Willow Garage’s PR1 was made largely from wood, including many of the gears and included fabric skin on its limbs.

Willow Garage PR2, the successor to PR1

Willow Garage’s PR2, the successor to PR1

The great, and difficult, thing about robotics is the wide range of subjects in encompasses. Mechanical design and fabrication for building the robot body, electronics engineering for building the circuitry to make it do something and math and computer science skills for programming the robot. All of these layers of the robot interact with each other so a skilled robotics engineer will need to be familiar with more than one. Less obvious skills are also part of robotics. Many people are familiar with Willow Garage‘s very shiny PR2 but the first version, PR1, was build mostly from wood including many of the gears. Sewing and textiles are useful for building robotic skin, especially for flexible limbs with embedded sensors, see the PR1 again and Ian Danforth’s work on open source robotic skin.

Kiva RobotI also take a much broader view of robotics than just mobile semi-humanoids etc. A robot is any device which has embedded intelligence that allows it to sense it’s environment and make decisions or a device which has been programmed to behave in a way natural objects do not. Most of my current robotics projects are in home automation; two wheel balancers and quadroters are great examples of things which seem to violate the normal laws of physics. In her article on Robohub, Andra Keay discussed how robotic technology is invisibly integrating itself into consumer technology. Ian Danforth made a similar point recently about robots vs. solutions. Kiva Systems makes very cool warehouse robots but they don’t talk about robots much. More and more products are incorporating robotic technology but once it has become a product, it usually isn’t called a robot anymore.

Rethink Robotic's BaxterSo what is a robotics hackerspace? It’s a community that includes people who think robotics are cool and that uses robotic technology and builds classes around robots. The thing that will really differentiate Robot Garden will be having not only the normal hackerspace tools (some of which are robotic like CNC machines) but also world class robots for people to learn on and experiment with. I also look forward to working with people on adding robotic technology to our space, door and light automation, custom vending machines and things I haven’t even imagined.

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