ROBOTS (Sabine): Hi Erin, welcome to robots! Can you start by introducing yourself to our listeners?
Erin Kennedy: I’m known online as Erin RobotGrrl, and I build robots that are character robots, so they all have an interesting look to them, they’re personable, and they also have open source hardware that you can build yourself.
ROBOTS: We’re actually at the Open Hardware Summit at MIT. What will you be presenting here?
ROBOTS: We’re going to have to go through all these robots, and they’re all really fun! A good friend of mine actually built the RoboBrrd, and he just loves it – that’s what got him started in robotics. This interview is going to be part of Robohub’s “Getting started in robotics” series, and the reason we’re interviewing you is because you’ve really learned everything by yourself. How did you get started in robotics?
Erin: I got started when I was 13. I was injured for the summer from doing track and field, so I got a Lego Mindstorms Kit and started building robots. Eventually I got bored of it because all the robots involved wheels of some sort – it was sort of limited in that way.
Afterwards, I discovered Arduino and started learning more about electronics… eventually building up my knowledge to the point where I could build robots that are characters from my imagination. Eventually I created one called RoboBrrd. It was originally made out of pencils and Popsicle sticks, and has evolved since then.
ROBOTS: What did you find difficult when you started making robots after the initial Lego Mindstorm?
Erin: What I found difficult was the electronics, because the Lego Mindstorms hid that from us. I was good at programming, good at the mechanical part, but as for electronics, I had no idea what was going on. That part was quite difficult.
ROBOTS: How did you end up learning electronics? Did you by a soldering iron, did you just try, and have things burn up?
Erin: I bought an Arduino, some servos, some LEDs and just started following all the tutorials online, and eventually, using that knowledge and code from the tutorials to make up my own stuff.
ROBOTS: What kind of tutorials? For those who want to get started like you?
Erin: I learned actually from the Adafruit tutorials. They were amazing – they still are amazing – and I definitely recommend them.
ROBOTS: What’s the first thing that you made, where you thought ‘Wow! I can make robots now!” … ?
Erin: I made a blinking LED, like many other people do when they get an Arduino and from there I thought, ‘Oh! I made an LED blink! Now maybe I can make a solenoid move or a servo move.’ I essentially got three servos together and created this pink snowman-like robot, sort of like Keepon, but not as cute. And it was pink. And not as good. [Chuckles].
ROBOTS: One of the robots they made for me was also pink. Do you think that the robots you make are more for girls?
Erin: It’s about half and half for RoboBrrd. Lots of girls like it because they can design it however they want, and boys like it too, because they can make it look like an Angry Bird.
ROBOTS: You actually have a RoboBrrd here. Can you describe it for us?
Erin: This is the last handmade prototype of RoboBrrd that I built. It’s sort of the famous one, and when I plug in the battery here…
ROBOTS: [interrupts] Wow! You just plug that in?
Erin: Yeah. [mechanical noises]
ROBOTS: Okay, so this is the real deal! It just opened its mouth now!
Erin: When we put a hat on it, it will do different behaviors …
ROBOTS: Wow! It’s clapping its wings! It’s going with its beak! How does it sense the hat?
Erin: On each hat is a little NFC tag, and then inside the head of the RoboBrrd is an NFC sensor.
ROBOTS: What’s an NFC sensor? I don’t actually know …
Erin: It’s similar to RFID. [more mechanical noises, beeping]
ROBOTS: I can see the wooden parts of the robot, and believe that this one of the first ones … probably your first baby. Can you tell us what went into going from this, to making a kit that people are buying to teach their kids how to make robots?
Erin: It was actually a massive undertaking to design all of the laser cut pieces based off of this design. It was tricky to make it very sturdy so that it won’t fall apart, but also to make it so that it’s easy to assemble. I can actually stand the final design, and it gets assembled with wood glue … so it’s very easy and very strong.
ROBOTS: You basically designed this at home. Where did you find a laser cutter and all the tools that you need to make the commercial kit?
Erin: For the laser cutter, I used SpikenzieLabs (they are nearby me in Montreal). It was pretty simple: I designed the files at homes – I can even print them off on a normal printer and just measure it all – and just a few tweaks were needed for the laser cutting.
ROBOTS: How do you build one of these robots? Because it comes with all the pieces detached, so you really have to do the whole thing …
Erin: There’s three main parts to building a RoboBrrd. There’s the chassis, which is the outer shell – the laser cut pieces. And then there’s the electronics, which you have to solder yourself – it’s a RoboBrrd brain board, an Arduino derivative. And then there’s the programming, and there’s example code to get you started for programming the RoboBrrd. Then you can just go from there and start adding your own code.
ROBOTS: You mentioned that people have been sending you pictures of what they’ve been doing with these RoboBrrd kits. What are the crazy things that you’ve seen?
Erin: One of the craziest things that I have seen is a Hunt-the-Wumpus-style game that uses GPS and has LCDs. There’s also a face-tracking RoboBrrd with really big eyes, actually harvested from an Elmo, so it was pretty funny. Also a miniature RoboBrrd about the size of an Arduino, so very small, and it actually works as well. There’s also a speech synthesis and recognition RoboBrrd.
ROBOTS: That’s pretty impressive. You have robot parties to bring together all these developers. What happens during these parties?
Erin: It’s a Google+ Hangout, and people who build robots can join in and show their robots and really discuss what stages they are going through and what their challenges are. It’s been neat to see how all the projects have progressed over time.
ROBOTS: Since you’ve seen so many people develop robots, what are the parts that are missing in terms of tutorials or in terms of help? What would have helped you get started?
Erin: What would have helped me get started faster along the path that I’m going right now is more tutorials about integrating psychology and interaction into the robots. What do people expect when they interact with the robot? How do you judge if you can make it better or fine tune it.
ROBOTS: Is that something that you’ve had to think about for RoboBrrd, for example?
Erin: Yes, and I’m trying to think about it even more so now, and creating some tutorials for basic RoboBrrd behaviors that you can work with.
ROBOTS: Did you follow the research world, the state-of-the-art in human-robot interaction, or is this based on your experience?
Erin: I was deeply inspired by Kismet, like many people are. I definitely had that [influence] but [Robobrrd is] not quite as sophisticated.
ROBOTS: You also have a humanoid robot?
Erin: My humanoid is based off of a kit by Kyosho, and I modified it to the extent that it’s not like the real kit anymore. It’s got a different brain, and it used to play hockey but then it burnt out its knee servos; it also has a ping pong ball and tennis ball on its head. I need to get it back up and running at some point.
ROBOTS: And you have a new robot, the Botbait? Tell us about it … it’s a really cool tentacle robot.
Erin: It’s a basic tentacle mechanism robot and it uses Sugru in its center core so that it can be flexible, and you can make it at home. It’s a two-stage tentacle mechanism: the end piece can move independently from the upper piece to create these S-curve fluid motions. It only uses four servos, and has lots of LEDs on it going down the tail. One of the basic behaviors I made for it was sensing and reacting to distance … it does different things [depending on how far] you are from it.
ROBOTS: It looks like a tentacle … so is it called ‘Botbait’ because it looks like something that a fish would go after? Where does the name come from?
Erin: Exactly. It looks like something a fish would go after, and it’s attached to a wall or whatever mounting or base you want to use … sort of like on a fishing line. It moves around on its mount and isn’t very permanent, which makes it look like it’s ready to catch some fish – robofish I guess.
ROBOTS: Is there a plan to make a robofish?
Erin: Sure! [laughs]
ROBOTS: Tell us about the kits that you’re selling. What can people make based on everything that you’ve developed?
Erin: They can make a RoboBrrd, or a cute toy-like robot, and also Botbait. There’s also the ability to customize it further by using the open source hardware that’s available for it.
ROBOTS: Have you found it difficult to actually make something that you can sell?
Erin: Definitely. The steps that are involved with making something that’s reliable are always tricky. One of the good things I’ve found is that by using the 3D printer and getting reliable results every single print, it makes it a lot easier to speed up the development time from going to prototype to production.
ROBOTS: You went through Indiegogo, correct? How did that work?
Erin: It worked out really well. The Indiegogo [campaign] for RoboBrrd really did kick start everything that I’m doing. It was funded 151%, and we got about 100 RoboBrrds out there in the wild. The response has been great so far.
ROBOTS: You do this all by yourself?
Erin: Yup, just me so far. Just me and the robots.
ROBOTS: Do you think you can bring this to the next level, or are you more interested in exploring other types of robots?
Erin: I hope I can bring it to the next level because it would be cool to have a real life Pokémon scenario, where you have all these creatures and everyone builds them themselves and then they can interact with each other.
ROBOTS: Can these robots interact?
Erin: If you use an XP radio, you can get them to communicate with each other, or even infrared, LEDs it’s really up to you. The tutorials are out there on how to make that work with Arduino.
ROBOTS: Where do you see this going in the future? What steps are you taking now?
Erin: Where I see this going in the future is toward a lot more blended reality. The robots will be able to interact with the computer or an iPad, and you’ll be able to explore different features and have different functionality. That’s definitely something rare. I’ll be doing more things like this in the future, so keep a lookout!
ROBOTS: You’ve also been going to Maker Faires, and you’ve had a lot of success there. How have you found the Maker community?
Erin: The Maker community is really great. For example, one of the reasons I’m here is that I won a travel grant from the Open Hardware Summit and Ada Initiative, and that’s all based off of me showing my robots at Maker Faire and being interested in open source hardware. They’ve really all helped out a lot, and it’s been great.
ROBOTS: Do you feel that we should be doing more to get girls involved in science and engineering?
Erin: Well yes, or even just getting everyone more involved in it! When people see that RoboBrrd becomes a character, they’re instantly interested in it. There should be more fun and nice things in the world, as well as making things that have a purpose.
ROBOTS: Do you think that what makes it fun is the fact that you can decorate it and you really can make it a character? Is that the missing piece in a lot of the hardware-oriented kits?
Erin: I think that’s part of it, but there’s also the idea that some people just like their RoboBrrd in the plain brown material that it comes in. This is something that you can give life to and make it do whatever you want. It’s like your robot friend, and it will be there to cheer you up!
ROBOTS: If you could start from scratch, what would you change in RoboBrrd?
Erin: I would change the circuit board. The cost to manufacture the circuit board has been a big challenge for me. I’m exploring different options, such as maybe having a shield for it that attaches to an Arduino, or using an Arduino Pro Mini.
ROBOTS: Arduino… how have you found the experience? That’s a platform that a lot of people are using and learning with.
Erin: A lot of people know Arduino. And for a lot of people had their first experience with Arduino using RoboBrrd. Their software is great, their hardware is great. It’s just a really good step into micro controllers.
ROBOTS: Why go open hardware?
Erin: That way people can learn from it … learn about how I designed it and how they can actually modify it and customize it to be what they want.
ROBOTS: Are you thinking of also sharing the code as well, and going open software?
Erin: The code right now should be licensed under the SD clause, so it is an Open Source Initiative license. Sometimes it’s on GitHub, sometimes it isn’t, either way it’s available. If you just look around on the website you’ll be able to find it.
ROBOTS: Do you know who buys your robots? My friend [who built your Robobrrd] is a 25-year-old guy, so I wonder, is it the parents or the dads who really want to build this RoboBrrd, and then they get their kids onboard? Or is it the teenagers?
Erin: I don’t know. That’s one weird things that I’ve been trying to figure out. It seems to be that whenever I try to find a pattern, something else comes up. I guess a lot of people just want to build a RoboBrrd.
ROBOTS: That cool! I want to build a RoboBrrd too, especially now that I have the original one in front of me! It looks really awesome. Thanks, Erin, for being here with us on Robots.
Erin: Thanks so much.