How to build your own ro­bot

In­spired by a bril­liant new book, we show you how to build your own ro­bot from house­hold junk

Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS - By Barry Did­cock

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)

Pho­to­graph: Gor­don Ter­ris

Barry Did­cock and daugh­ter Kitty with their ro­bot

The Did­cocks as­sem­ble their ro­bot

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