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Let There Be Light

Somewhere in all humans, whether it is buried under layers of the subconscious or right at the forefront of the mind is the desire to create. For some this means making babies, for others it is writing or building bridges or cooking, and for some it is robotics. Throughout our lives, most of us will create across a variety of fields, but we usually find a special area or two that we are passionate about. Obviously for me one of those fields is robotics.

When I talk to people who are wishing to get into hobby level robotics I invariably try to steer them towards starting with solar robots (solarbots) or BEAM Robotics. There are a number of reasons for starting with solarbots over any other style of robotic platform that I use in an attempt to persuade entrants towards the "Light Side" (get it? Pretty clever huh?) of the field. Outlined below are a few of the more prominent reasons:

1. Variety of Skills Used - a big reason for starting with solar powered robotics is the number of different robotics based skills that are used and learned when building a robot of this type. In my opinion, basic electronics and soldering skills are a must have for any hobby roboticist to possess, and while these skills can be learned with mcu (microcontroller unit) based and battery operated robots, solarbots are less complex in design and thus easier to grasp the basic skills from. I have also noticed that most BEAM/Solar roboticists tend to understand what they are building better than those who use other platforms.

2. Simplicity - as I just stated, solarbots tend to be far less complex in design compared to their battery operated and mcu-based cousins. Simplicity means easier to understand and easier to complete. I have seen far too many people entering into the robotics field who try to build something complex in nature, only to wind up falling flat on their faces and abandon the project (and the field) entirely. Completing robots stirs up desire to build more robots and that keeps people in the game.

3. Costs - not always a problem, but robotics is not a cheap hobby. With $50, a bunch of scrounged components, some free time and a little scouring the SOR Forums you can build the $50 robot depicted at Society of Robots website. For under $10.00 and a free afternoon you can build a solarbot. Solarbots do not use batteries and generally do not use mcus (two of the three most expensive components for a robot), thus are much less expensive. Again, completing robots stirs up desire to build more robots.

4. Efficiency - solarbots are powered by the sun. Solar cell technology sucks (in the range of 20% efficient). Robots of this nature must be very efficient in order to operate, which teaches roboticists great methods of producing energy efficient designs. You will thank yourself in the future for learning how to get the most out of the energy available.

After going through my spiel the majority ignore me and take on a momentous robot building task, which they plan to have wash their dishes, mow their lawn, bring them beer and provide intellectual conversation. As a result, few complete their robots, fewer still stay with robotics. I equate it to trying to run a marathon before learning to crawl. It is what it is.

Don't get me wrong, solarbots are not the only place to start and be successful in robotics. Many people have gone different routes (I started with a step-by-step robot some 24 years ago). Either way, the moral of the story is to start simple and understand what it is you are doing. In case you are persuaded towards solarbots, there are many great places on the web to help get you started with solar robotics, two such places are Solarbotics.net and the BEAM Robotics Wiki.

The reason for this long introduction is that this is the place where I will start the Evolution Project. Solar power. In the beginning, life on Earth consisted of simple creatures that harnessed the power of the sun (or volcanic heat vents) to survive. The simplest of life forms; and thus the simplest of artificial life forms. 'Let there be light.' And there was light.

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