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Prototyping 101

Prototyping is a beautiful craft. You have a team and an idea, and then you build a new product that you can potentially push to market. Every prototyping project starts with an idea. Ideation is extremely fun especially if you brainstorm with your team and follow a couple of rules such as encouraging crazy ideas, avoiding criticism, drawing rather than saying, etc. Finding the right people for your team might seem hard, but you have to think of the common goal you have. Also, remember if you have no conflicts in the team, then you are doing something wrong. Finally, with an idea, team, and some basic funding (unless you are just developing a concept for VC) you can start researching and planning the process and building itself. Then build it. 

One advice on how to come up with ideas is to break the barrier of false logic that defines what is possible or impossible, innovative or useless, awesome or stupid.

A month or so ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jamie Hyneman in person. I really wanted to build an innovative and technologically sophisticated robot (or, you know, we’ll see how it goes), but I wanted to build it for something, to have a purpose for it. So, I asked Jamie what that robot should do because I was kinda short on ideas before I was taking summer courses on creativity (great stuff, try it sometime). He, on the spot, came up with several ideas (amazing, right?) of different robots and drones that do different things, like lifting stuff, carrying things to old people, robots that utilize infrared sensors, etc. One idea that really stuck to me: mobile heat sensor robot that puts down fires with embedded actuator that triggers fire extinguisher. My team and I might be building that as the next Project Work. Besides the idea, Jamie gave me some invaluable insights on prototyping.

“Instead of using a 3D printer I can just grab a piece of plywood, drill a hole here and there and put together a simple robot frame that still does the job. It is a simple and versatile material.” There is no doubt that everyone who knows his way around building things would choose wood because it is the best and the most fun material to work with: it is sturdy and versatile material that you can use even for building a robot frame. While everyone spends weeks on modeling and printing out of basic PLA plastic, you could take this approach of quick prototyping and simply use wood.

Mini Cheetah is a small, agile four-legged robot that can run and do backflips.

However, of course wood is not applicable everywhere. Thus, I would rather go with 3D printing. If you practice long enough, you can design whatever you want and have it in a custom light plastic form relatively quickly. My team and I used PETG for printing a drone frame for our Anti-poaching Drone project, and it worked great. It is light and sturdy enough not to break on the first fall. 

When it comes to building robot joints, it is also a good idea to get your hands on outrunner motors, which is a type of brushless DC motor. Essentially, it is a servo motor packed with encoders. It offers continuous rotations, high torque, and CAN bus controller. A good example of the use of the motors is the widely known MIT Cheetah. They are on a pricey side, like $300 a piece, but the Mythbuster ensures that these motors are worth the effort. These motors act like servo motors with 4 inch diameter and they planetary gear with 6:1 reduction ratio. They can supply high torque very quickly, which gives that advantage when used in robot joints. That’s what helps MIT Cheetah to jump like that. 

It is a good idea to have someone (in case it is not you) in your team fluent in Python and C++ programming languages for coding Arduino controllers and Raspberry Pi. One should use Arduinos for basic sensors and motors to manipulate a robot (or any other construction) by writing commands or using other inputs (buttons, encoders, etc.). It is easy to work with them, especially on relatively simple projects by coding in a special IDE in C language. For more sophisticated projects, one needs to use a Raspberry Pi computer that allows for autonomous robotic control. Those things are extremely powerful and advanced. For both Arduino and Raspberry Pi there are a ton of tutorials available. 

It is arguably good advice not to plan everything thoroughly because it is kind of the point of prototyping to improvise during the project. That way you can be sure of the best innovative solution on budget. 

I want to leave you with this last thought: thinking about a crazy innovative product and creating it from scratch gives a truly magical purpose. Remember what Einstein said: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”. Go build stuff now.

Sergey Vorobey

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