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Gary Teachout & his Robot Gallery

by Steven D. Kaehler (c) 2000

Introduction

This article is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of articles that focuses on a specific member of the Seattle Robotics Society, highlighting them, their interests, and their accomplishments.  I hope these articles will be entertaining, informative, and provide some insight into what makes robot builders tick.  This article starts the series off by spotlighting Gary Teachout, an avid robot builder and tinkerer who has achieved considerable recognition for several of his machines through his participation in robot contests.

garyrbt.jpg (9735 bytes)

Inspiration & Perspiration
Gary has been interested in robotics for over fifteen years now, but has tinkered with gadgets since he was a child.  He has no formal training in the disciplines associated with robotics (electrical and electronic design, software, or mechanical engineering, etc.) but taught himself what he needed to know as required.  He started out with a little PC and basic electrical knowledge and went on from there.  He was first inspired to try building a robot when he saw a computer-controlled "Capsela" machine draw on a piece of paper.  Once he got a taste of this, he was hooked.  He even wrote his own LOGO language for doing robotic art and many other programming projects.  The Capsela "turtle" robot showed Gary that computers could control real-world devices and interact with their physical environment.  He really wanted to make them into robots.

Gary has built about ten robots in the last fifteen years, but only a half a dozen are functional or close enough to it to be made operational.  He likes to use whatever raw materials are available for his robots.  He enjoys seeing something he's built move around, mimicking an animal or other living creature.  This has resulted in some very creative uses of metal, cardboard, wood, plastic silverware and buckets, and many other common junk drawer items.  He likes to program and finds robotics to be a stimulating extension of the software out of the computer into the real world.  He particularly enjoys doing something new or untried.  He prefers to program in assembly language and C and has used the 68HC11 and  68332 processors on robots.

Gary's Robots
Gary has built more robots than most SRS members, a few among them are:

ERC

LC

HexEx

Speedy

Thumper

TTT or T3

Mutant

Each of these machines was built with a specific functional goal in mind, pulling together whatever technologies Gary felt were best suited to achieve their purpose. ERC is an experimental robot designed to rove about on its own, avoiding obstacles by scanning its environment with an IR sensor of Gary's own design.  It's built from K'NEX with cardboard providing body panels and a solid appearance. The IR sensor sweeps the area in front of the robot looking for obstacles.  LC was originally designed to be a line follower, was later modified for maze solving in the SRS Robothon, and then fire fighting in the Trinity College FF Robot contest.  HexEx is Gary's first attempt to build a walker.  It has lights in each leg that indicate when the leg is pushing against something.  It uses three servos to move the legs in a tripod gate pattern whereby three legs are always in contact with the ground for maximum stability.  Unfortunately the leg's inability to bend and adapt to obstacles in the way, and the robot's high center of gravity give it little tolerance for ground slope.  Gary had hoped that it would be able to navigate rougher terrain than a wheeled robot, but it turned out to be rather clumsy on all but flat, smooth surfaces. Speedy is a line following robot that doesn't even have a "brain".  It uses simple logic gates to control the two drive motors.  When he first showed it off, this robot really blew away other members of the SRS because it was fast, reliable, and yet "brainless".  It is capable of moving rapidly along a line, pivoting on one wheel if it overshoots or otherwise loses sight of it, and quickly re-acquiring it.  Gary really established his reputation for unique approaches to contests with this robot.  Then there's Thumper, an old robot that originally interfaced to an Atari 400 computer to draw patterns on paper.  This was one of Gary's earliest projects which he used for some navigation experiments.  He later added a BOTBoard to it.  Table Top Toy or T3, is a little direct-drive bug-like machine that scoots around a table top, backing away from the edge by using some downward-pointed IR proximity sensors.  The antennae hanging off the front allow the robot to detect and then back away from obstacles it might bump into.  Last but not least is Mutant, a Cybug with modified photosensor circuitry to make it more adjustable for different lighting conditions and whiskers to feel for the edge of a table.  It does the same things as T3 but not as well.

Each of these machines delved into a different area that peaked Gary's interest at the time, challenging him with interesting and sometimes frustrating technical problems.  They amused him because of their enigmatic qualities, but as he built them, he learned a great deal in the process and just kept going until they worked.  He enjoys solving puzzles and building robots certainly gives him plenty of those.


Gary's "Family" Portrait

SRS: First Contact
Gary first came in contact with members of the Seattle Robotics Society about six years ago after seeing Karl Lunt and Kevin Ross (past SRS presidents) on a University of Washington TV robotics colloquium.  He contacted them, and started meeting with the other club members shortly thereafter, maintaining pretty active involvement ever since.  At that time, meetings were taking place at North Seattle Community College following the same "show & tell" format used today.  The regular attendance was in the 30+ neighborhood even at that time.  The Encoder newsletter was still a paper-only periodical with limited distribution.  SRS members didn't pay dues but could purchase the newsletters to help fund club operations.

Advice to Starters
For newcomers to robotics who want to build something but aren't sure where to begin, Gary has a few suggestions.
 

  1. Get plugged into an active local robotic club if possible.  If one isn't available, at least join the SRS listserver and take advantage of the enormous intellectual resources available online.  (See the SRS website for details.)
  2. Choose a first project that is relatively simple.  Don't try to do too much too soon or you'll lose interest or get too frustrated to complete it.  There are a COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) solutions that allow one to build a working robot in a couple hours for those who don't want to deal with the engineering difficulties of robot building.
  3. Subdivide your project into manageable chunks, building and testing each piece before attempting to integrate them into a complete system.  For example this might break out as
  4. Plan ahead.  Don't be too ambitious in your goals but think about where you want to go before you get in too deep or are too committed to a particular path.  This isn't always easy to see until you're there, which leads to the final suggestion below.
  5. Don't be afraid of failure.  Much can be learned about how not to do things and some back-tracking will be inevitable unless you use a pre-engineered kit.

Conclusion
Gary is nice guy to chat with, offers interesting ideas for how to do things with robots and computers, and uses some of the most interesting materials to build robots.  He works part time and so has more time than many of us to do his hobbies and build robots.  Visit his website and you'll get a flavor of his other interests and projects.  And look out at the next Robothon, because he builds some mean machines.