Meri Amber, a budding roboticist in the making, has been eagerly looking for ways to learn robotics on her own. In this article, Meri explains where she has found resources to help her so far and recommends five ways that you can teach yourself robotics too.
At the start of this year I was enrolled to study an advanced engineering degree majoring in Mechatronics, with the view that I would focus on robotics and become a fully fledged roboticist. However, despite my organisation, life threw a curve ball my way. My fiancé and I had the opportunity to purchase our dream property and did so, but it meant I was now located too far away from the university to make it feasible to study the course.
But, did I give up on the robot-building dream? No I did not. Instead, I have found many many ways you can self-learn robotics!
Possibly the most obvious place to start is with online courses. Especially with the myriad of fantastic free (or extremely cheap) online courses that exist. This is a no-brainer.
There are long-form courses that are very similar to university courses (they may, in fact, be taken directly from university courses) available on sites like Edx, Coursera, Udemy, Udacity and MIT Open Courseware. You can literally study the course content for an entire computer science degree online and for free!
There are medium or shorter form courses as well. So, if formal, long-form courses are not for you there are still plenty of options. These include Dev Diner’s own voice assistant course (if you want your robots to be able to voice interact!) as well as a myriad of others you can find on sites like O’Reilly and Sitepoint.
There are even apps available that can help you learn how to code in various robot-friendly languages, like SoloLearn, so you can do your learning on the go.
Doing theoretical study or learning coding languages is only one part of the puzzle with robotics though. Making robots requires practical experience in working with electronics as well as various other materials.
An obvious place to start here, and one that’s not too daunting, is with robotics or maker kits. The kits come with all the parts you need, which is handy if you don’t know anything about parts yet. They also come with proper explanations, introductions and, often, starter projects.
Although Lego Mindstorms sounds like a kids toy, it has been brought into university courses by professionals in the field to help teach aspiring roboticists and is a great, albeit expensive, start. Other “toys” that can help introduce you to robotics include Sphero (see their SPRK+ kit!), Cozmo and mBot.
If you’re not much for toys and want to get straight into the nitty gritty, there are fantastic microcontroller maker kits on the market that can start you working with electronics parts and coding in various coding languages.
You could start working with Arduino using their Arduino/Genuino Starter Kit, or you could get yourself a Sparkfun Inventor’s Kit, where the final project is an autonomous robot. You could start working with Particle using their Particle Maker Kit. Or, you could start working with Raspberry Pi and get a Raspberry Pi Pro Kit (you’ll have to buy the actual Raspberry Pi separately).
In general, if you’re browsing through an electronics store in real life or online, you’ll find there’s a section specifically for “kits”. There are plenty of options for you to find something that will excite and inspire you and relate to your specific interests there.
Learning through courses and working your way through kits is not enough on its own. As a roboticist, you should know what’s going on in your field and how changes might affect you. You’ll also find, by following on with recent developments and by learning about other people’s creations, you’ll be more inspired to continue!
Tech blogs are perfect for this. Not everything on every tech blog is going to be specifically relevant to robotics, however, you can certainly find the relevant parts and stay on top of them.
Dev Diner itself is a brilliant place to start (so you’re clearly ahead of the game by being here!). The Dev Diner newsletter goes out once a week and has a section that focuses on robotics, with single sentence summaries (with links to full articles) of recent developments. In a few minutes every week, you could have a good idea of what’s going on.
Other sites that do features on robotics or relevant topics include TechCrunch, Wired, The Inquirer, All About Circuits and Stacey On IoT. Though you’ll find, by chasing up more on stories you’re interested in, you’ll discover more sites and more places you can bookmark and come back to.
After getting a little more comfortable, perhaps after having practiced coding and having become familiar with a few microcontrollers, creating projects is a great way to tackle novel problems and start making truly exciting things. I do warn, from experience (I may have jumped the gun a bit with this one), that you’re better off starting on projects after you’ve done some prior learning.
One thing you can do straight away is browse for inspiration. There are some truly fantastic places where you can find inspiring projects, some that you may even want to recreate or expand upon. Great sites for this include Make and Hackster.io.
When getting started, I’d recommend going for “official” electronics parts with support and easy to understand manuals. You can get these parts at places like Little Bird Electronics (if you’re in Australia like I am). Though these are more pricey, for someone that’s new to robotics and making, the clarity is worth the extra money.
Once you’re more confident, there are places you can get much cheaper parts like AliExpress or even just eBay. You can also get creative and integrate items that you have lying around the house or you could tinker with older items that you might otherwise just throw away (if these are electronic items, make sure to be safe and do your research before you start).
Finally, one of the best things about a structured course like a university degree is that you’re around like-minded people who are also interested in learning robotics — both other students and those with an advanced level of knowledge and experience.
However, university is not the only place you can find people interested in robotics. Meetups, groups, events and communities (both online and offline) are places where the most passionate people in the field gather to meet, learn, create and discuss things.
Whether you’re stuck and are desperately after help in getting through a roadblock, want to collaborate with others or are looking for inspiration – connecting with others who are exploring the same space is a great thing to do.
If you’re not yet familiar with Meetup, it is a site worth checking out as many tech events are posted on there. There are also big maker days like Nodebots Day, hackathons and other one-off events (that are usually promoted at the relevant meet-ups and online) that can work as a springboard into the wider community.
Some events, meetups or communities may be a perfect fit, others may not. It’s always worth asking people at events if they know of any other groups or meetups as you can discover more community events by word of mouth. Then, once you’ve experienced a wide selection, you can choose your favourites to continue attending or even create your own!
With a combination of all these different methods of learning, I genuinely believe you can get the equivalent of a university-level education in robotics, and even, potentially go further. It may not be the exact same thing that you could learn in a degree, it may be either broader or more narrow (depending on what path you choose to take). But, nowadays, there’s no need to feel left out if you’re unable to undertake formal study. The resources are there waiting for you to learn and grow with them!
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