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Having your personal computer control your robot is a good use of available resources because you already have the computer to do the job. Of course it probably also means that your automaton is constantly tethered to your PC, with either a wire or a radio frequency or infrared link. Just because the average PC is deskbound doesn t mean you can t mount it on your robot and use it in a portable environment. Whether you d want to is another matter. Certain PCs are more suited for conversion to mobile robot use than others. Here are the qualities to look for if you plan on using your PC as the brains in an untethered robot:
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Small size. In this case, small means that the computer can fit in or on your robot. A computer small enough for one robot may be a King Kong to another. Generally speaking, however, a computer larger than about 12 by 12 in is too big for any reasonably sized bot. Standard power supply requirements. A PC will require +5, +12, 5 and 12 V, and many PCs will also require +3.3 V. Depending on the motherboard that you use, you may discover that the +3.3, +5, or +12 V supply is the one that requires the most current as it is used to power most of the components on the PC. A few will function if the
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AN OVERVIEW OF ROBOT BRAINS
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12 and 5 voltages are absent. It may take a lot of work to figure out which power supplies are required and how much current must be available to each one. Accessibility to the microprocessor system bus or an input/output port. The computer won t do you much good if you can t access the data, address, and control lines. The IBM PC architecture provides for ready expansion using daughter cards that connect to the motherboard. Standard motherboards also support a variety of standard I/O ports, including parallel (printer), serial, and Universal Serial Bus (USB). There are a number of I/O cards designed for the USB so this may be the most promising avenue. Programmability. You must be able to program the computer using either assembly language or a higher-level language such as BASIC, C, or Java. The open source community has a number of open source compiler projects available for you to choose from. Mass storage capability. You need a way to store the programs you write for your robot, or every time the power is removed from the computer you ll have to rekey the program back in. Floppy disks or small, low-power hard disk drives are possible contenders here although the low-cost USB Flash thumb drives are probably your best option. Being solid state, they will be much more reliable in the vibration-filled environment of a robot and they use very little power. Even modest sized (64 MB and less) thumb drives can be loaded with an operating system and application code, eliminating the need for operating systems all together. If these drives are to be used, you will have to make sure that your motherboard can boot from the thumb drive. Availability of technical information. You can t tinker with a computer unless you have a full technical reference manual. While manufacturers no longer publish these manuals, there are a number of references available for PCs that you can choose from and many of these will discuss alternative applications for PCs (such as building them into robots).
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The PC may seem an unlikely computer for robot control, but it offers many worthwhile advantages: expansion slots, large software base, and readily available technical information. Another advantage is that these machines are plentiful on the used market $20 at some thrift stores. As software for PCs has become more and more sophisticated, older models have to be junked to make room for faster processors and larger memories. You don t want to put the entire PC on your mobile robot; it would be too heavy. Instead, remove the motherboard from inside the PC, and install that on your bot. How successful you are doing this will depend on the design of the motherboard you are using. The supply requirements of older PC-compatible motherboards are rather hefty: you need one or more large batteries to provide power and tight voltage regulation. Later models of motherboards (those made after about 1990) used large-scale integration chips that dramatically cut down on the number of individual integrated circuits. This reduces the power consumption of the motherboard as well. Favor these newer motherboards (sometimes referred to as green motherboards, for their energy-saving qualities), as they will save you the pain and expense of providing extra battery power. The keyboard is separate and connects to the motherboard by way of a small connector. The BIOS in some motherboards will allow you to run the PC without a keyboard detected. You will want this capability without it, the motherboard won t boot the operating system, and you ll need to either keep a keyboard connected to the motherboard or rig up some kind of dummy keyboard adapter. The same goes for the video display. Make sure you can operate the motherboard without the display.
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