The KR01 Robot Project

This article is the first in the multi-part series “Building the KR01 Robot” ( 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ), and describes some of the background leading up to the project. Further posts can be found under the KR01 tag.

About a month ago, when I started, I hadn’t really thought much into the future of my rather humble robot project, certainly not enough to consider where it might lead. Certainly not enough to think about starting a robotics group. At this point I have no idea where that group will lead (if anywhere), but I can at least blog about the project itself.

A Little History

Z80 Single Board Computer, ca. 1979

In my senior year in high school in 1979 I designed and built a robot. It used an 8 bit Intel Z80 single board computer1 with 1K of RAM memory running at a whopping 2MHz. The PC board was about one square foot (30cm), had a hexadecimal keypad and a six-digit red LED display. It sat on top of a chassis I built out of aluminum and some large circular PC boards I found in a surplus shop on the outskirts of Des Moines, Iowa, that apparently were from the insides of a missile. It used two large DC motors, a wheel caster and a 6V lead acid battery. It was an ambitious project for a high school student and I never quite got the ultrasonic sensors working properly (the schematic was from a fish finder), but it was a good learning experience, a lot of fun, and led eventually to an IT career.

Over that career I had the fortunate experience of working at NASA Headquarters for a few years, where as a fellow Mac enthusiast I met Dave Lavery, the head of the robotics division. At the time he had a prototype of the Mars Sojourner rover sitting on his desk. I remember marvelling at the beauty of the machining of the wheels, and wishing I had that kind of budget (and a machine shop). While helping to set up a public demo I also had the opportunity to pilot a telerobotics sled under the ice in Antarctica. Not surprisingly it was an amazing place to work.

NASA Sojourner Mars Rover
Photo courtesy NASA

Years have passed and I now live in New Zealand, where most of my creative energy has over the past few years been in music (I have an improvisational abstract band named Barkhausen; we just finished our second CD).

The combination of experimenting with some DIY microcontroller-based Eurorack synthesizer modules and the advances in the world of Raspberry Pi has found me back into robotics. For the past few months I’ve been purchasing various playthings from Pimoroni and Adafruit and doing some experimenting.

While browsing around doing research for the project I came upon a YouTube video “David Anderson demonstrates his method for creating autonomous robots“, where David showed a local group of people some of his robots:

David Anderson demonstrates his method for creating autonomous robots

Now, I wouldn’t say David’s robots are the most sophisticated ones I’ve seen, not walking around, not androids with faces that move, not MIT’s Shakey nor something from NASA. But they are remarkably clever designs. He also seems like a really nice, down-to-earth guy. What struck me was the fact that his robots were within the reach of normal people to build. Something I could build.

Following David’s trail led me to the Dallas Personal Robotics Group (DPRG), which claims to be “one of the oldest special interest groups in the world devoted to personal and hobby robotics”. Undoubtedly. They were founded in 1984, five years after I’d built my robot in high school.

I ended up joining the DPRG mailing list. In replying to one of their members’ messages where I mentioned I’d started building my own robot, he was very friendly and encouraged me to blog about it. Well, the only blog I had has been devoted to my band and that didn’t seem particularly appropriate. Then, last night we had some friends over for dinner and I was surprised to learn that their 9 year old girl was quite keen to learn about my robot project. So I proposed the idea of starting a Pukerua Bay robotics group.

It turns out there isn’t any national robotics group in New Zealand, nor even a local one near Wellington, so when I was shopping for a domain name it turns out that “robots.org.nz” was available so I bought it. We’ve gone national!

So, if you’re interested, you’re very welcome to follow me on this journey to build a robot…

Next: stuff begins arriving in the post…