Getting started in robotics.
October 21, 2015 4:53 PM   Subscribe

I have a 9 year old son. He's interested in making his own flying drone. How do we get started? Kits are fine, but I'd like to stick with simpler plans if possible.
posted by boo_radley to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Lego? Here's another.
posted by Mchelly at 5:56 PM on October 21, 2015

Lego has a great robotics kit (not cheap), but not for flight. Mchelly's second link there would be easier without the Lego, methinks. Because of motor speed and weight requirements, a flying drone is going to work best from a purpose-built kit.
posted by rikschell at 6:02 PM on October 21, 2015

I am a robotics and technology teacher. Flying drones and "robotics" don't really mix at the beginner level.

What kind of kid is your son? Because if he wants the social status of building an expensive kit that other people will recognize, then there are starter kits for the two dominant systems-- Lego Mindstorms, which usually retail around $350, or VEX, which about the same, but gets expensive fast as you continue to constantly upgrade and buy parts. But VEX does look more like a robot than Lego. You may get a slight discount if you can piggyback on his school's order. Both of these systems have really robust education programs, and many competitions, and one of them will almost certainly be the "robotics" classes that are offered in his school.

Or is he a tinkerer? A maker? Someone who is willing to use recycled material or even junk? In that case, my highest recommendation for an easy flight project would be the Noodle Copter, which can probably be built for around $150-200. If you meant robotics, then I think the GoPiGo unit is a good introductory kit in the same price range that teaches a good base of technical skills, and also gets him a Raspberry Pi as the "brain" for the robot, which can be reused for a hundred different projects-- he could even run an optimized version of Minecraft on it if he hooks up a keyboard, mouse and monitor to it.

Another option would be a tiny drone-- roughly the size of an oreo cookie. They are really getting good and cheap this year. Cheerson is one manufacturer I have experience with, but there are others. In a store or online you could expect to pay around $30 for one, or ten dollars less if you order direct from China and don't mind a bit of a wait for shipping.

I didn't mean to snark about the social status thing-- they are good systems, but expensive, and they are both "walled gardens". My own preferred style is to experiment with everything, and use low or no-cost components without fear of failure. It is hard for a parent to spend $2000 on a VEX system and then the child finds out they don't really like it.

Thank you for supporting his interest, and let me know if you have any questions!
posted by seasparrow at 6:47 PM on October 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

these are really great answers. We have a raspberry pi 2, but have just tinkered with it enough to put a linux distro on it and make a music player & emulator. I hadn't considered that it would be useful as a drone component. If you have any pointers to get us started in that direction, I'd be grateful.
posted by boo_radley at 7:51 PM on October 21, 2015

Maybe this?
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:19 AM on October 22, 2015

I don't want to be rude, but I do this for a living, and some of those ideas won't work. Some of the links people googled were from Instructables, which is basically the Yahoo Answers of engineering-- no guarantee the project was ever completed, tested, or that the author isn't a complete idiot.

Here is a better alternative: Make Magazine. They recruit the best subject matter experts, and then independently build and test everything before it goes in the magazine. You don't even need to subscribe-- they put everything on their website for free. Projects my students have built from Make that turned out well and that I recommend for your son are: Maker Trainer 2, "The Towel" stunt plane, and "RC Plane from Garbage." But there are plenty more I haven't tried. Their "Maker Hangar" will have a wealth of additional projects, and another good launching page on that website is "Homegrown Drones". Many of the projects even have reasonably priced parts kits for sale if you don't want to collect all the fiddly bits yourself. I will also repeat my approval for the Noodle Copter-- any homebuilt quadcopter is going to be some variation on this project, using the same parts but perhaps switching out the pool noodle for cardboard, or grocery-store meat tray foam. But it will be basically the same. The Noodle Copter is fun, well documented, and actually flies.

I wish I had a good Raspberry Pi drone build suitable for a beginner, but so far I haven't found one. I just want to repeat my experience that with kids, especially a nine-year-old, you don't want to start with a huge project that will take years to pay off. Factor in their attention span and learning abilities at that age. Start with some "quick victories" to teach the fundamentals and keep their interest up. I will repeat my assertion that buying a $30 nano-drone and letting him play with it for a week to gauge interest might save you a lot of heartache in the future. Once he has experience flying, and genuinely likes the whole experience, that is when you say, "Now let's look at building that yourself!" And then move on to the Noodle Copter, or the Maker Trainer 2.

If you are determined to build a Raspberry Pi drone, it will be difficult, and usually involve connecting an Arduino-based controller for the sensors as well. Out of all the people working on this, I think OwenCad's work will eventually pay off, although he is working entirely on coding, so you will still have to design the aerodynamics and control surfaces yourself. Or who knows, maybe that Instructables project will pan out? Anything can happen.

I waited a day to post this follow-up, because I don't want to be rude, and I am sorry to disapprove of some of these suggestions, but this is what I do for a living, and I think my real-world experience may be more valuable than someone else's quick trip through a search engine. Let me know if you have any other questions, and your school is lucky to have a student like your son and and supportive parent like you!
posted by seasparrow at 7:24 AM on October 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is fine and I welcome your expertise.
We looked at some of the Rpi drone plans, and they're too complex. I've found kits that seem to be good for complexity and time commitments. I expect that we'll get to a simple wheeled robot/ drone kit that (ex) in a few months. After that, perhaps a drone kit. From there, perhaps when he's 12 or so, we'll go full bore into electronics and soldering.
posted by boo_radley at 12:57 PM on October 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

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