This hobby has really changed since Linda and I moved to Seattle from Phoenix back in 1989. Robots then were known more for weight and current draw than for functionality, and most robot owners spoke in the future tense: "When I get this thing running..."
Just eight years later, a typical SRS meeting fields 50+ people, a large percentage of who bring in working robots. And many of those who do speak of their projects in the future tense already have at least one working 'bot behind them.
Far from being a local phenomenom, this speedup of progress appears all over the country. Just tap into various web sites to see pictures, descriptions, plans, and articles about skads of working or evolving machines. Or grab a peek at the PBS Scientific American Frontiers show that aired Wednesday, 9 April 1997. It featured some nifty robot contests and contestants, including a team of high school students competing in the aerial robot contest in Georgia last year.
Many different technologies have appeared or improved in the last few years to make all of this progress possible. Cheaper and more powerful home computers, better access to the Internet, more sophisticated tools (both hardware and software), and a better flow of information at all levels; all have helped smooth the hobbyist's design and construction of robots.
As an example, consider my closet shelf. I'm currently unpacking after a move to our new home in Bothell. I emptied a couple of packing boxes and stashed the contents on the top shelf. Looking at it now, I see development or evaluation boards for the 68hc16, 68hc11 (several of those), PIC, V25, 80c52x (high-speed 8051 clone), 68332, and I just added an EVB for the Motorola 5203 ColdFire processor. This doesn't include the assorted 68hc11 BOTBoards laying around, nor the 68hc12 hardware under development or the different modems I've hacked into EVBs on my own.
My point here is that the variety of microcontrollers (MCUs) and single-board computers (SBCs) available to the advanced hobbyist is staggering. Leaf through nearly any trade journal or technical tinkerer's magazine (such as Nuts & Volts), and you will see several ads for different boards that would look outstanding in your next machine. And most of these boards come complete with software tools for getting your designs up and running.
Even price, as measured against functionality, has dropped dramatically. The small SBCs, such as the BOTBoard and Basic STAMP, have cut the cost of building a small robopet to under $100. In fact, without the reduced size, cost, and complexity embodied in SBCs such as the BOTBoard, I doubt many people would have gotten their first 'bot rolling.
This variety of boards and MCUs in turn spawns a spiral of technology, as SRS members start down the several available paths. Now the club sports experts in most of these chips, and newcomers can find help and tools no matter which chip suits them. If you need to hook a motor or encoder to nearly any MCU above, one or more SRS members has been there and done that already. Just raise your hand in a meeting or post to the listserver and you should get a boost over that particular hurdle.
The acceleration of progress applies equally to fields such as sensor technology, motors, electronic designs, compilers, power supplies, communications, and any other field that fits in the robotics set of disciplines. Need an RF link for your machine? I've seen a few in the SRS already. How about adding vision to your 'bot? No problem, SRS members have done everything from CdS arrays to high-speed full-color NTSC frame grabs. Looking for a stepper motor driver? That's a very popular item in the club, and several people can help out, even providing etched and drilled PCBs for working designs.
The evolving expertise available to SRS members is one of the club's greatest strengths. Take some time at the next meeting to ask around and find out what others are working on. Share what you've done or what you'd like to do, then listen to what others have done or are doing. You'll find that the speedup in robotics technology evident in the last few years within the SRS can help you past some tough problems. You, in turn, can then help others over their hurdles. Each helps another and the club continues to grow and advance, just as it has for the last eight years that I've been a member.
Keep on keeping on...