Robotics is the design, construction, operation, and use of robots. But this definition is rather uninspiring. What is a robot? What can you do with robots? And how can you build your own?

This article will show you:

A Brief History of Robots

The word “robot” was coined in 1920 by Josef Capek. His brother, Karel, used the term to refer to a fictional humanoid in the 1920 play R.U.R [PDF].

Robots are machines that can carry out actions (or series of actions) automatically. The term encompasses a broad range of devices, but in general, they can:

  • control their actions
  • receive sensory feedback
  • process information.

Robots are typically programmable. They can be guided with control devices that are external or embedded within the robot itself. A robot can be fully autonomous, or it can be completely subservient to its control mechanism.

Over time, robots have become more and more complex. Today’s robots are tasked with jobs that were once performed by humans but are now deemed overly repetitive, dangerous, or occurring in environments that would be hostile to humans, such as outer space or on sea beds.

Mars Curiosity Rover

What Can Robots Do?

There are many applications for robots, and not all are complex — some are simply toys for toddlers. Here are just a few examples of the tasks they carry out:

  • Work in extreme environments: War or nuclear zones, sub-sea areas, and outer space, are all too dangerous for people to work. Robots can carry out many of hazardous tasks. For example, drones allow for reconnaissance in enemy-occupied areas in times of war, Curiosity is off exploring Mars, and Wally is crawling around on the floor or the ocean.
  • Help around the home: Robotic household appliances, such as mops and vacuum cleaners, perform work on behalf of their owners.
  • Control autonomous cars: Autonomous cars have been prototyped since the 1920s, but the most commonly-known facilitator of modern self-driving car research is probably Google. Vehicles that drive themselves are getting smarter, and though they haven’t become mainstream, some have already taken to the roads.
  • Read and learn: University of Oxford researchers created Marge, a “literate” robot that can read the newspaper and teach herself facts. Marge’s “intelligence” is derived from her software, and the researchers responsible for her are attempting to teach her the reasoning skills found in humans.
  • Assist people with health conditions or impairments: Robots can help those with physical disabilities carry out everyday tasks. For example, wheelchairs have evolved into motorized multi-purpose machines; for example, they can help users with limited use of their arms open the fridge door and retrieve a meal. Items like prosthetic arms and legs have also gone from being simple peg-like devices to “smart” limbs able to communicate with the human brain.

Robotics Companies

You can get a good idea for the future of robotics by looking at what robotics companies are doing today.

Robotics Business Review, a leading online source of robotics news and information, publishes the RBR50. It’s a list of the most noteworthy companies in the robotics industry. Companies on this list were selected based on their innovations, groundbreaking applications, and commercial success and potential. They’re tackling issues in healthcare, logistics, and aviation.

Some of the more well-known companies on the RBR50 include:

Getting Started with Robots

Not all robots are highly-complex machines. Some can be quite simple, such as this introductory robotics toy for kids. The sky is the limit when it comes to elementary robotics projects, so here are some resources you can consult for ideas:

  • Your First Robot: Instructables offers a list of 15 easy robotics projects for you to try, including a Solar Cockroach Virbobot and a Robot Racer.
  • How to Build a Simple Robot: This RobotShop tutorial teaches you how to make a custom robot in just ten steps.
  • Making Simple Robots: Explore Cutting-Edge Robotics with Everyday Stuff: This introductory book by Kathy Ceceri is written in language non-engineers will understand. It teaches you how to build simple robots using materials you probably already own.
  • How to Build a $10 Robot: The African Robotics Network issued a challenge in 2012: design a robot that costs $10 or less to build. Not all are super simple, but these projects are an inexpensive way to get started.
Man making a robot
Arduino-based home made robot, wheels spinning thanks to a few lines of code!

Sourcing Materials

Once you have the ideas, you may need to purchase additional materials, such as electronics components and microcontrollers. You can get these at your local hardware, hobby, or electronics stores, or you can order them online from retailers like Amazon, Maker Shed, Parallax, and Robot Shop.

Robot Design and Construction

There isn’t set standard for how robots should look, so the sky’s the limit when it comes to design. Robot designs can range from ultra-functional (such as those used on automobile manufacturing lines) to sleek machines that are as aesthetically pleasing as possible without sacrificing function (such as iRobot’s line of vacuum cleaners).

When you’re designing your robot, you’ll need to identify:

  • The purpose of your robot
  • The requirements for your robot (such as size, shape, energy source, and so on).

For an in-depth treatment on how to design the best robot for your needs, see Robotics Design Process.

The parameters you identify will impact the final design of your robot after it has been constructed.

Controlling Robots

Control is one of the biggest things you’ll have to work through when designing and building a robot.

There are many ways of controlling robots, each offering the robot itself a different degree of autonomy:

  • At one end of the spectrum, you can maintain full control of the robot by allowing it to move only when given explicit instructions (such as with a remote control).
  • On the other end, you might program the robot to decide by itself what its next moves will be based on the sensory input (such as light or sound) it receives.

You could also find a balance between both approaches.

Remote and Radio Controls

Hooking an external controller up to a robot is the easiest way to get started. Using the controller, you’ll issue instructions to the robot, which will then respond to your commands. A robot controlled in this manner typically has little or no intelligence.

To take this a step further, you can switch from a tethered control to a wireless one, which reduces the need for a physical connection between the person controlling the robot and the robot itself. Such implementations typically involve infrared transmitters and receivers, which requires line of sight between the two.

However, if you don’t want these kinds of limitations, you can utilize other methods of communication, such as remote control (R/C) units or Bluetooth. The latter also offers for two-way communication.


Programming Your Robot

Child programming a robotBy including a microcontroller and motor controller in your robot, you can program your robot to carry out specific tasks.

Think of a microcontroller as a tiny computer capable of reading in and executing a program. The motor controller acts as the intermediary between the microcontroller and the robot since the latter isn’t capable of providing sufficient power to the robot’s motors.

By programming your robot, you can build increasingly autonomous machines. Autonomous control can be pre-programmed to accept no sensory feedback, limited sensory feedback, or complex sensory feedback.


  • Learn to Program with LEGO’s Mindstorms line of products.
  • The Raspberry Pi is a small, affordable computer you can use with your robots. It is very popular and therefore easy to find all sorts of helpful tutorials. The makers of the Raspberry Pi also have a solid curriculum that is a great place to start.
  • Robocode is a programming game where you can learn to program robots in Java or using the .NET framework.
  • Toptal’s An Introductory Robot Programming Tutorial has lots of useful tips.

For the Young (and Young at Heart)

There are plenty of robots aimed at children. They’re excellent products for adults looking for a gentle introduction to robots, too:

  • Engino: Engino produces modular building kits that incorporate robots components; you can think of its items as a cross between robotics, LEGO, and k’nex.
  • LEGO: The company offers many products in the robotics arena. In addition to the established Mindstorms line, LEGO is launching its Boost program, designed to teach kids programming and basic robotics.
  • Ozobot: Pocket-sized robots designed to teach robotics to kids ages 6-14.
  • Robotis: A maker of robots and robot kits from hobbyists and STEM professionals. They have several lines of robots; some are appropriate for children as young as five, while the Bioloid Series is the most commonly used kit for robotics competitions.

Conferences, Meetups, and Trade Shows

While robotics can be a solo activity, it doesn’t have to be. Conferences and trade shows are great ways to meet up with like-minded hobbyists, researchers, and other enthusiasts. They’re also great ways to get information on innovations:

  • Robots for Roboticists maintains a calendar of all upcoming robotics conferences and events, though a majority of the events are aimed at an academic or professional audience
  • To meet hobbyists and enthusiasts near you, look through listings on Meetup, Eventbrite, or Facebook
  • You can also join a local club.


A robot at the RoboCup in 2013If you’d like to try your hand at robotics competitions, you can enter your creations to RoboCup, SparkFun’s Autonomous Vehicle Competition, RoboGames, or the SRS Robothon.

Frequently Asked Questions About Robotics for Students

I’m overwhelmed — where do I start?

Kahn Academy is known for its easy-to-understand information. It provides tutorials on building home-made robots. You might also consider getting a kit aimed at school-aged children since these will include everything you need to complete a project, as well as detailed instructions (see the section above entitled For the Young (and Young at Heart).

What’s the best way to learn to program for robotics?

If you don’t have any programming experience, the LEGO Mindstorms line is a great way to get started. The products are readily available, and the tutorials online are top-notch.

Is robotics expensive?

You can get started with very little money and use commonly-found household materials, but in general, you get what you pay for when it comes to robotics. As you build increasingly complex machines, you’ll probably find yourself buying more expensive materials. As always, you can look for specials and deals to save money.


While robots are capable of some impressive feats, not all are ultra-complex machines. In fact, many are simply hobby projects that you can easily complete yourself. It’s quite easy to get started with robotics and using the resources presented in this guide, you’ll soon have your own robot army.

Further Reading