I have since moved to a more advanced development platform called Arduino. The Arduino is a family of microcontrollers and comes with its own development environment. The Arduino is more advanced then the entry level robotics hobby kits, such as Lego Mindstorms and Vex, but it is also more versatile and much more is possible.
There are several versions of the development boards available from Arduino (arduino.cc), and the prices are very reasonable (ranging from US $20-$70) on ebay. The different versions allow you to find one that fits your budget and your specific robotics project.
The Arduinos have many I/O pins (analog, digital, PWM) that allow for many actions such as driving motors and servos, receiving sensory input, lighting up LED, creating sound with buzzers, and much, much more! The great thing about the Arduino is that it is excellent for beginners as well as advanced electrical and robotics engineers. It makes for a great development tool for students in engineering and computer science, but mainly, it's just a whole lot of fun!
There is a myriad of accessories made directly for the Arduino, but many additional items can be used with it that are not directly designed for it. When an Arduino is purchased from a reputable vendor (such as sparkfun.com) it usually comes in a kit that includes everything to get started. This kit may include wires, resistors, LEDs, motors, servos, and even sensors.
As the user becomes more and more comfortable and experienced with the Arduino, the builds can become more complex and challenging, and the fun level only gets amped up!
The Arduino microcontrollers can be programmed with any Windows, Mac, or Linux computer, and Arduino offers a very simple development environment that allows users to write their programs in a user-friendly version of C. There are also many existing examples, tutorials, and online resources available that will facilitate virtually any homemade robotics project. There are even books written about the Arduino and how to use it, and there are even specialized books on specific projects that can be built with the Arduino.
Arduino Robotics (ISBN#: 9781430231837 - US $39.99) by John-David Warren, Josh Adams, and Harald Molle is one of my favorites. It guides the read by providing detailed instructions and helpful tips and tricks on how to make your very own robots! They are not just any robots; these are some cool and practical systems that provide real fun in designing and building them and using them.
As seen on the cover, you even learn how to make your very own Segway robot called 'Seg-bot' using the Arduino and some cheap parts you can find online, at RadioShack, or in someone else's scrap pile.
The book provides information on where each part can be found or how to make your own. When building the projects in this book, you are mostly given the option to either purchase a part or component that is already made or how to build your own. For example, the L298 motor driver boards can be purchased for about US $20-$35, but the L298 chip, copper-clad PCB, capacitors, diodes, etc. can be purchased for less than US $10. Detailed instructions are provided on how to make your very own motor driver board that looks professional and functions practically the same for less than half the price. The book even teaches you how to make your very own Arduino from scratch!
As many Arduino fanatics will testify, during your projects you will most likely make mistakes and burn up your Arduino on accident. Instead of buying a brand new Arduino each time you have destroyed one, many Arduino hobbyists are making their own Arduinos for a fraction of the cost. The book teaches you how to make your own printed circuit boards that will facilitate and expedite the Arduino clone making process.
If by reading this blog you feel that this is too advanced for you, do not let me scare you. All the basics are covered in this book ranging from building beginner electrical circuits to writing your very first program.
If you are serious about robotics or just want to have some real, educational fun, I would certainly buy an Arduino kit from sparkfun.com and then the Arduino Robotics book when you decide to continue with Arduino.
I even used the Arduino in my senior design project. We built a robot that balances on a basketball! See it in my other blog here. Or see the YouTube video