This package managed the neat feat of putting me-not the world's most skilled or experienced electronic hobbyist-in control of robots that I built myself. Likewise for a ten-year-old boy and his own robots. Robotic Workshop is a combination hardware/software/mechanical components package that teaches a variety of lessons about electronics and mechanics, provides software for controlling the devices you build,, and accomplishes both purposes simply enough to make the system appropriate for children in upper elementary school and beyond.
While children will, I think, enjoy working with Robotic Workshop and will learn a great deal from it, this is not a toy. Even the simplest projects involve assembling mechancial devices, loading software, and controlling the experiment via an interface that plugs into the computer. At the same time, there are no soldering irons to warm up, few wires to shave. Explanations are in fairly simple English, and the frequent diagrams, although small, are easily followed even for complex constructions.
Best of all for younger users-not to mention their parents and teachers-the motors and components all snap to gether easily. Access has built its Robotic Workshop around the Capsela system of mechanical hobby parts. A Capsela motor, for example, is a reversible electric motor encased in a transparent plastic sphere. Capsela spheres are studded with coupling ports by which the motor, say, can be connected to a Capsela transmission, and thence to a gear system. The components snap together easily, and it's quite a thrill to be able to watch gears turn and motors spin under your control.
Robotic Workshop comes with two motors, two speed reduction modules, two worm gears, a transmission, and plenty of couplers and connectors. You also get a propeller, a wheel, and a tire, all of which are used in some of the experiments. All of the parts worked as promised, and are sturdy enough to stand up to repeated use. Other Capsela elements are listed in a catalog included with the package.
Connecting power to the motors is as simple as assembling the machines. A ribbon cable that comes with Robotic Workshop has leads which are inserted into sockets on the Capsela units. No twisting of wires and tightening of screws.
The power itself comes from batteries in Robotic Workshop's B100 interface. The interface must be disassembled to install the batteries. Once batteries are in place, the interface plugs into the user port on the 64 or 128, although 128 owners will have to remove the RGB connector, a fact oddly overlooked in Access's documentation. On Apple II-series machines, the B100 plugs into a slot (and thus the system will not work with the Apple IIc).
Once installed, the B 100 and the Robotics Operating System (R. O. S.) software that comes with the package are your passport to whole worlds of electronics and mechanics. R. O. S. is itself one of the most impressive aspects of Robotic Workshop. The software has a variety of BASIC commands by which you control motor speed and direction, program multiple motors, and meter various operations. Some complete motor control programs are included to get you started, but it doesn't take long to begin putting together your own routines.
Hardware, software, and mechanical components can be assembled and configured in a variety of ways. Robotic Workshop's 50 projects are intelligently arranged, moving from the introductory to the advanced at a sensible pace that maintains interest without skipping important details. The first project, for example, "Motors & Electricity," provides a brief but solid discussion of electricity and circuits and then puts the lesson immediately to work. Within minutes of opening the manual, installing the B 100, and booting R. O. S, you can be controlling motor speed and direction from the keyboard.
By the time you get started on the second project, you're already assembling small machines. The first one is a simple fan, whose speed and direction, again, can be controlled from the keyboard.
Advanced experiments take advantage of the base to which Capsela machines can be mounted; if you're working with children, I'd recommend using the base from the beginning. Its stability is necessary.
The deeper you press into the projects provided with Robotic Workshop, the more sophisticated the projects become. The first dozen projects deal with motors and gears, including lessons on hoists and cranes, gears and torque, multiple motors, gyroscopes, and even metering the efficiency of the engine. Subsequent groups of projects focus on generators, digital electronics (including programming the joystick to provide robot control), light and color (which includes uses for Benham's disk, as well as examples of strobe effects.) There are projects that use infrared sensors for counting and measurement of speed and rpm. Robotic Workshop can interface with audio devices, making possible experiments with digitized speech. The B 100 has a voltmeter built in, letting you test batteries. You can build a burglar alarm or a radar-like tracking unit. Capsela components can be put together to make a mobile vehicle or plotting device. At the end of the manual are suggestions for other projects, although, by the time you reach the end, you will doubtless be generating ideas of your own.
While the package contains a good selection of components, which can be used over and over, it's likely that the more robots you build, the more you'll want to build. Some of your plans may call for more parts than those included with the kit. I was not familiar with the Capsela system before Robotic Workshop, nor could I find them at nearby hobby stores; order forms and catalogs are included with the package, however. Robotic Workshop's box contains a styrofoam container with snug recesses for the Capsela elements; for the smaller parts a ZipLock bag makes a good storage container.
Robotic Workshop impressed me, as it did the children to whom I showed it. Its lessons are both practical-what is electricity, how do motors work, and so on-and informative. With Robotic Workshop, you get a glimpse of the nature of programmable machinery and the promise that robotics holds. The lessons learned with the snap-together Capsela components would seem to me easily translated to larger motors, to more advanced study of the subjects Robotic Workshop introduces so well.
- Keith Ferrell
Apple II (excluding the Apple llc)-$169.95
545 W. 500 South
Bountiful, UT 84010
Teacher's edition available; additional Capsela components can be found at hobby stores or ordered via the catalogs included in the package.