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You probably stumbled upon this article because you are (or someone you know is) looking to start robotics. Congrats! You are now entering into a world of intense frustration and highly-gratifying satisfaction. Robots do exactly what you tell them to, whether you want them to or not. Have a look at my top 3 ways to start robotics, today.

#1. Start Robotics by joining a local Robotics Team or Club

Robotics teams are all the rage these days. If you aren’t aware of robotics teams, there are two very popular types: FIRST Robotics and VEX Robotics leagues. I’ll briefly discuss each league below.

FIRST Robotics

FIRST was founded in 1989 by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, with inspiration and assistance from physicist and MIT professor emeritus Woodie Flowers [1]. FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is probably the most popular robotics team and competition across the nation (and possibly across the world). Think of Robotics meets a Rec Sports team. Essentially a “game” or challenge is released by the FIRST organization annually, and teams form to compete in the game. It’s a combination of teamwork, gracious professionalism, and friendly [engineering] competition.

If you’re searching for a FIRST team to join, you will need to know which league you’re looking for because they have quite a few options. The FIRST leagues are separated by age and difficulty.

FIRST LEGO League Jr (FLL Jr)

FIRST LEGO League Jr is designed to teach early-stage STEM concepts to students ages 6 to 10. The league is based on designing science solutions using LEGOS.

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FIRST LEGO League (FLL)

FIRST LEGO League is focused on bringing applied robotics challenges into elementary school classrooms (grades 4 to 8). Two coaches help students research real-world problems. Then, the students design a solution using the LEGO MINDSTORMS robotics kit.

FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC)

FIRST Tech Challenge is designed for high school teams who have limited funding, time, or resources to design a full-size robot. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great league because it allows the students to do majority of the work, whereas the FIRST Robot Challenge requires specialized support in robot design and construction. FTC robots are typically table-top sized and do not typically require welding, specialty wiring, or highly complex subsystems. This makes it easier for high schools to fund and support with appropriate resources. All you need is a traditional toolbox of parts and you can build and create a competitive bot.

FIRST Robot Challenge (FRC)

As I mentioned above, FRC robots are much more complex and are designed to be the product of a collaboration between high schools and professional engineers. FRC robots are larger, floor-sized, 75lb-plus “battle-bot” style robots. It’s beneficial to have a whole pit crew ready to design, build, program, and test these robots. Otherwise, the challenge can become overwhelming fast. I haven’t known FRC teams who have been successful without the full support of progressional engineers or companies both for financial means and technical capabilities.

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VEX Robotics

VEX robotics is known mostly for their high-quality robotics educational kits and parts. Funny enough, they actually supply parts to FIRST Robotics teams, talk about Similarly to FIRST, they also have competitions based around an announced “challenge.” Participating teams design, build, and program a custom robot to compete in the challenge. Winners of the challenge receive invitations to state, regional, and national competitions. The VEX robotics world championship in April, 2016 was named the largest robotics competition in the world by Guinness World Records [2].

The three main VEX leagues are VEX iQ, VEX EDR, and VEX U.

VEX iQ is a competition based around the plastic (think lego) robotics kit. It’s designed for elementary and middle school students. For more specifics about the VEX iQ competition, refer to the VEX website.

VEX EDR is a middle and high-school robotics competition designed around metal and aluminum parts. The VEX EDR Design System (kit) is a popular choice for this competition. Students program their robots using RobotC software, which is a great choice for learning beginner C-programming. You can learn more about the VEX EDR competition here.

VEX U competition is very similar to VED EDR, however, it’s designed for college and university students. There is also a budget and materials restriction included in this competition.

Robotics Clubs & Societies

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Secondly, you can search online for local robotics clubs and societies. Robotics clubs and societies focus on bringing a diverse group of robotics and technology enthusiasts together to talk about robotics. Think of a book club, but more focused on discussing the latest in robotics, tech, and coding, instead of reviewing books. Robotics clubs and societies are also great ways to build your professional network.

A few great places to find robotics clubs and societies are websites like meetup.com or searching on Facebook. If you’re in the Hartford, CT area, the Connecticut Robotics Society is a great place to meet a variety of skilled and friendly robotics people! Hey, you might even find me there! 😉

#2. Utilize Online Courses and Robotic Educational Kits for Self-Learning

Looking for a way to become familiar with robotics on your own? Use online tools such as Coursera, Udemy, and YouTube to self-educate yourself prior to joining a local team or club. I recommend searching for “beginner robotics course” or “robotics programming.”  You can also pick up a robotics kit and start building your own bot!

I’m not going to go in-depth about which online courses I think are worth your time in this article, but if you’d like my opinions on the best options, please leave a comment below.


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#3. Sign Up for Robotics Classes, Camps, & Events

Because robotics is so popular these days, it’s easy to start robotics. All you need to do is find local robotics events such as classes, summer camps, after school programs, and hackathons, to attend.

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Youth robotics classes and after school programs are typically catered to beginner elementary, middle, and high-school students. If you or your child is looking to work on a specific robotics platform (VEX, LEGO Mindstorms, Arduino, etc.), your best bet is to inquire with the instructor prior to taking the course. You can also narrow your search down by including those keywords in your search.

Furthermore, the same holds true for robotics summer camps. Majority of these camps are for beginner programmers; however, if you’re looking for intermediate or advanced course offerings, check with the colleges local to your area—they might have an applied programming class for students who have prior experience working with robots.

Just to give you an idea, robotics summer camps can range anywhere from $250-$2500 per session depending on the difficulty, kits used, and if it’s a day or overnight camp.

Out of the three options, expect this one to be the priciest. Just to give you an idea, robotics summer camps can range anywhere from $250-$2500 per session. To be sure you’re getting the most for your money, verify that the instructor has experience in teaching robotics classes and has had students successfully build, wire, program, and test working robots.

Wrap-Up/TL;DR

In summary, there are numerous platforms, from free to paid, that will provide you with classes and projects geared to helping you start robotics [Hint, hint, you’re on one of those sites now 😉 ].  Do a quick online search to join a robotics team, find free online courses, or enroll in a local event. If you’re still uncertain where or how to start robotics, check out our Upcoming Events.

References

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FIRST_Robotics_Competition

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VEX_Robotics_Competition

Find value in this article? Fill up my coffee cup.

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