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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Introduction To PC Based Robotics

What do we mean by PC based robotics?
We use the term PC based robotics in a very general sense. It refers to robotics that use any type of the wide ranging format of personal computers that we know today; desktop, laptop, mini, hand held, or a single board computer (SBC) for example. It can be running any kind of operating system and either be physically on the robot or used through distributed computing. Some defining factors are that the computer would have the familiar I/O and communications associated with modern computers; USB, serial, wireless communications, monitor, mouse, & keyboard ports.
Why is the PC ready now when it wasn't before?
There were three main reasons why roboticists were not adopting the use of computers as a processor platform of choice in the past:
1) Cost was too high
2) Size was too large
3) No robotics I/O available

The first two problems, cost and size, have largely been solved. Single board computers (SBCs) are now getting down to the size of credit cards for a few hundred dollars. Size will continue to shrink as technology advances and form factors will also continue to emerge more suited for the needs of robotics. Low cost networking technologies are also now available for using computers which are not physically on a robot.

The largest hurdle for roboticists in using a computer as their choice of processor platform was the lack of proper I/O needed for robotics. Common computers don't have analog and digital inputs or motor controller output ports. There are no A/D converters or places to input encoder signals like there are on more simple microcontrollers. In recent years a new realm of computer peripherals have emerged called bridgeware which solve the I/O issue for roboticists interested in using computers for their projects. Bridgeware components convert common computer I/O into robotics I/O, you can learn more about them here.

What do computers bring to Robotics?
A Standard Platform
As long as everyone is building robotics on vastly different processors we will never reach a point where there is transferability of technology in robotics. Moving to the 32 bit processor with the common I/O of computers allows roboticists to tap into the standards rich world of computers. This allows both software and hardware to become more transferable between users which allows for accelerated advancements.
High level Object Oriented languages, IDEs, and GUI
Software development on computers is a very mature and feature rich environment. The languages are powerful, the development environments are robust with extensive graphical tools, thousands of third party vendors build supporting tools for dozens of languages. Using a computer as the processor platform delivers all the powerful tools of computer programming and application development to the world of robotics development.
Tapping into the worlds largest pool of technical talent
The entry level bar for robotics currently is set pretty high. A person needs to be able to work with mechanics, electronics, and programming in order to build a robot. This poses a problem for the technology advancing since it reduces the amount of potential technicians that will be in the space. The electronics barrier is the most constricting of the three. For every electronic engineer in the world there are thousands of computer programmers. Computer programming is the most common technical skill in the world. Using computers and bridgeware in robotics development removes the electronics barrier to entry and allows robotics as a technology to tap into the massive talent pool of computer programmers all over the globe. This is something that will propel robotics forward.

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