How to build your own robot
Inspired by a brilliant new book, we show you how to build your own robot from household junk
IF you think robots are all around us today, wait until tomorrow – by which I don’t mean the tomorrow of 20 or 30 years from now, I mean the tomorrow of 10 years’ time, or five years or one. Or maybe even sooner. How does Christmas sound? Last week, for instance, educationalist Sir Anthony Seldon predicted that within a decade, robots would start to replace flesh and blood teachers in classrooms, and with better results. Meanwhile in Japan, a cute robot called Vevo, which has a bear-shaped head and a humanoid body, is already being used in nurseries to cope with staffing shortages. And in Denmark, technology company Universal Robots has built a machine that can ice a child’s name perfectly onto a birthday cake made by its human co-worker. Such robots are called “cobots”. I wasn’t joking about Christmas either. This year Santa will be hauling the first wave of real robot toys down chimneys, among them technological wonders such as Cozmo. Manufactured by a company in – where else? – San Francisco, Cozmo went on sale in the UK last Friday and is essentially a £200 robot pet which will recognise its owner and learn their name. Meanwhile Meccano, now owned by Canadian toy company Spin Master, has produced a rival in the form of the uber-cute Meccano M.A.X., which bears more than a passing resemblance to WALL-E. Then again, why pay all that money for a robot someone else has built when you can create your own unique one – and have fun doing it at the same time? That, in essence, is the thinking behind a new book called Assembled: Transform Everyday Objects Into Robots! Written by artist and self-confessed junk geek Eszter Karpati in collaboration with a group of like-minded designers, it’s a defiantly low-tech riposte to toys such as Cozmo and Meccano M.A.X., to cutelooking industrial robots like Vevo, and to whatever the Danes call their cake icing bot. In place of their expensive, high-tech, space-age components these robots use everyday objects like forks, spoons, cheese graters, tins, bits of old bike and unloved golf clubs – as well as more esoteric and hard-to-source retro items such as vintage sweetie tins, old Kodak cameras and transistor radios.
One of the leading lights of the homemade robot-building scene is Branimir Misic, who trained as a mechanical engineer and began making sculptures from recycled metal in 2011. “Most of my pieces have humanoid characteristics and are built to evoke amusement,” he says. He’s not wrong: it’s one of his pieces, Cheese Guardian, which is Karpati’s cover star. He (or is it she?) is a cute little item made out of a measuring cup, a cheese grater, a woodenhandled salad server, two spoons, two forks and assorted nuts and bolts.
Even more ornate – positively baroque, in fact – is the steampunk-tastic Benny And The Jetpack, made by American artist and illustrator Amy Flynn. She began making robots in her spare time, sourcing material in junk shops and markets around her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, and has given her particular oeuvre the name FOBOTS. It stands for Found Object Robots.
Benny is made from an old electrical tester, the innards of a vintage hairdryer and the blade from a fan. The bird on top of the fan, says Flynn, “is either offering inspiration or else gently mocking Benny’s misguided attempt to fly”. Another of Flynn’s pieces included in the book is Akimbo, in which a robot with an orange pool ball for a face does a onearmed handstand on a black globe while the other hand holds a parasol.
Other robots in the book have names which run from the prosaic – Universal Tool Guy, say, or Mobile Phone Man – to the poetic. One such is Damon Drummond’s Even Robots Get The Blues, a robot with immensely long legs and arms, a battered blue battery charger for a body and an old bicycle light for a head. But it’s the body language that catches the eye and stirs the emotions: Drummond’s bot hangs his head disconsolately, while in either hand he
holds a wilted flower. Jilted, lovesick or just plain heartbroken? You decide.
All in all, it’s a veritable smorgasbord of robots cooked up in every flavour of cute.
And cooked up is the appropriate phrase. “Assembling the robots in this book is not unlike following a recipe so we decided to model the style of the projects loosely on recipes in a cookbook,” Karpati writes in the introduction. “As each of the robot projects is made of found objects, the ingredients relate to each specific bot recipe but you can easily substitute other found objects made of the same or similar materials.”
Now there’s a challenge I can’t walk away from. So, armed with a handful of kitchen items, one or two “found” objects, a tool box, a smidgen of gaffer tape – is that cheating? – and some odds and ends from the garage, I’m setting out to build myself a robot. I also have a helper – my daughter Kitty, 9, no previous experience though she did once watch WALL-E on a loop for a year – and a comprehensive understanding of what makes a good bot, thanks to an abiding love of all things sci-fi. What else could we possibly need?
WE start with the body. It isn’t the fun part – that’s the weaponry, obviously – but it’s where the legs and the head have to be attached so stability is obviously a major concern. Our robot doesn’t have to walk or talk or hack into the Death Star mainframe computer like R2D2 in Star Wars, but it does have to be able to stand. So with dependability uppermost in my mind, and assuming that one day all household robots will come flat-packed from a certain globe-straddling Swedish design company, I’ve turned to IKEA for the body and co-opted the family cutlery draining thingamajig (it’s officially called Ordning in the IKEA lexicon, which I’m sure all Sunday Herald readers know is the Swedish for tidiness). It also has handy holes for bolting bits on. Or it would if I could find some bolts.
Still with IKEA, we ransack the cupboard under the stairs for any leftover bits of Billy bookcase and find a worrying quantity of the things you’re meant to use to fix them to the wall. No matter. They’ll make very good legs. Next up a bit of bling in the form of a bright silver cookie cutter and then, for the head, the piece de resistance – my Sovietera, medium format camera, a Lubitel 166B made by the Leningradskoye Optiko-Mekhanicheskoye Obyedinenie, or Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association. Better known as Lomo, the company has a cult following in the West thanks to the rather erratic results the cameras tend to give. There’s even a word for this style of photography: lomography. Our camera has no film in it, but I like how the top lens appears to light up when you open the viewfinder. It makes the bot look almost sentient. Almost.
Next up, the arms, which are also the tools and the weapons. Now, I’ve seen loads of sci-fi films where robots fly spaceships, fight aliens, translate things into Wookie, turn into cars, rescue people and stomp around shooting rainbow-coloured laser beams out of their mouths – that’s a Godzilla Vs Mecha-Godzilla reference, as I’m sure you’re aware – but I’ve never seen one in which a robot convincingly tackles a large amount of confectionery. So with that in mind, my bot is armed with a toffee hammer, which is a hammer for breaking up toffee.
I know, I know, every home should have one. Luckily, mine does. On the other arm is a bit from an old lock, which doesn’t do anything significant but it looks good so makes a perfectly acceptable laser cannon. Well if the Daleks can use egg beaters I can get away with the innards of a Yale lock. And I like
how it says “This way up” on the side. Because ‘bots have to navigate some difficult terrain, ours has been fitted with a compass. These aren’t standard, but we’ve pushed the boat out and gone for an upgrade. Another enhancement is the bright red, spring-mounted data capture orbs which will help our robot determine whether or not the air in the kitchen is breathable after the cat’s dinner has been decanted into its bowl. “Are these from my Deely Boppers?” Kitty asks suspiciously as she fixes them in place. No, like I said, they’re bright red, spring-mounted data capture orbs … Finally we have to name our bot. Kitty suggests Donald, which is so bad it’s brilliant. We give Donald a hat – actually a dented funnel we use for making chutney – and place it at a suitably rakish tilt. It suddenly gives him a slightly untrustworthy air, but something tells me our toffee-smashing, Soviet optics-celebrating, IKEA-utilising, Deely Bopper-wearing creation isn’t unhappy with the look: I’m sure he used one of his two lenses to give us a wink.
Assembled: Transform Everyday Objects Into Robots! by Eszter Karpati is published on September 21 (Jacqui Small Publishing, £20)
Barry Didcock and daughter Kitty with their robot
The Didcocks assemble their robot