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How to make a robot

Do you want to learn how to make a robot? In this article we explore what a robot is, some types of robots and discuss how to make a robot at home.

A girl holding up a handmade robot.

Sci-fi and popular culture have featured all kinds of robots in movies and books for decades, and it’s not uncommon to find a child’s bedroom adorned with robot memorabilia. We are fascinated by robots – but it doesn’t have to be in a fictional setting. 

So, what are robots made of, how are robots programmed, and how can we build our very own robot? Here, we will dive into these questions and much more. Read on to discover all you need to know about building a robot – including how to make a robot at home.

What is a robot?

Whether through the context of movies or perhaps in an industrial setting, you probably have some concept of these machines. But what exactly is a robot? When we hear the word robot, we may think of a human-shaped entity made of screws and metal. But this isn’t always the case. 

We can define robots as interconnected, interactive, cognitive, and physical machines that can perform a variety of tasks. As we discovered in our open step, robots can perceive their environment, reason about events, perform actions, and make plans using algorithms.

Built to replace human effort, they are used for various purposes. We’ll take a closer look at some examples of robots in everyday life shortly. 

Robots can carry out their tasks based on their programming and environment and are powered by electricity. They learn by exploring their environment and interacting with their surroundings. 

A brief history of robotics 

Although robots are often tied to the imagery of futuristic settings, the existence of robots is far from new. In fact, the word ‘robot’ was first used way back in 1921. Derived from the term ‘forced labour’, the word was first used in a play titled Rossum’s Universal Robots.

Beyond that, there were even earlier depictions of robots. Documents for plans of making mechanical devices to carry out tasks date back to 3000 BC. The first digitally operated robot was invented back in 1954 – the Unimate. It was made for industrial work and could perform multiple tasks.

Robots may have been around for a while, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still rapidly developing. Technological advances are constantly happening, and pre-existing robots are continuously getting updated and improved. 

Are robots safe?

There is some debate as to whether robots are a danger to society or not. Seeing as robots are often depicted as sinister in fictional movies and books, it’s no surprise that some people feel this way. 

But as it turns out, the threat that robots pose does not look the same as it does in movies. 

For those of you with automated home devices, you may often find yourself casually talking to your Alexa or Google Home. Whilst this can feel like a conversation between friends, it’s important to note that these devices are still very much connected to the internet. 

These robots can store your data and take note of your preferences – something to consider if you are cautious about your data. According to the Pew Research Centre, more than half of smart speaker users are worried about the personal data being collected. 

Another common fear is that robots will take over the job market. But are robots a threat? Can we all expect to lose our jobs at the hands of cyborgs hell-bent on snagging our careers? 

According to the World Economic Forum, robots are very likely to eventually take over a large portion of jobs. They’re able to carry out certain tasks faster than humans can – and without human error. The BBC has even put together a page where you can enter your role and check the likeliness of robots automating your role in the future! 

Don’t worry, though; along with the jobs robots will take over, a new wave of jobs will become available. A recent report discovered that the advancement of labour between humans, machines, and algorithms will create roughly 97 million jobs. 

For further insight into the role that robots will play in our future, check out our Building a Future with Robots course. In the course, The University of Sheffield discusses the ins and outs of job automation and future developments in the field of robotics. 

How do robots work?

Now we know all about what a robot is, let’s dive into how robots work. As we’ve touched on, robots come in all shapes and sizes. Since they’re not a one-size-fits-all, they naturally consist of different components and materials. However, there are some key components that all robots need. So, what are robots made of? 

The first on the list is an obvious one; electricity. To function, robots need to have access to an electricity source. This applies to handheld robots that thrive on batteries to heavy machinery that needs generators to function. We’ll need to connect this power source to a motor- but more on that later. 

We have the electricity to power our robot, but how does it physically perform its task? There’s another crucial component to every robot – a body. Each robot will have its own physical structure, which lets them carry out its work. A Roomba would be useless without its wheels, right? 

In addition to an electricity source and body, a robot also needs some degree of programming. This programming and coding are what lets the robot understand the task at hand. We’ll discuss how to program a robot a little later on. 

All of these components work together to make a fully functional robot. Once your robot is put together and programmed, it can begin to learn by experimenting with its environment. For a robot to learn, it’ll need to be programmed to do so. Check out our Introduction to Machine Learning and AI course to learn more about the way machine learning works. If you’re keen to boost your machine learning knowledge even further, check out our library of online machine learning courses

What are robots used for?

There’s no denying that robots are incredible pieces of technology. And whilst some are worried about potential robot take-overs or job replacements, they do a whole lot of good. Let’s explore some types of robots and the ways that robots are used today. 

Types of robots 

As we’ve discovered, there’s a lot more to robots than what we see in movies. Since they’re able to complete a variety of tasks, the type of robot will depend on its purpose. Let’s learn about some types of robots and explore some examples of robots in everyday life.

Social robots 

What separates social robots from other types of robots is that they can socialise and interact with humans. Their social skills even go beyond talking – they can read facial expressions, read movement, and much more. So, what are some examples of social robots in everyday life?

  • Alexa – you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Amazon Alexa – one of the most popular artificial intelligence robots. Alexa was first launched in 2014 but has been developing new skills since. 

The AI responds to queries and voice commands and can even play music along with many other features. If you’re interested in how computers understand human language, check out our Natural Language Processing course. 

  • Cozmo – another artificial intelligence robot, Cozmo is a friendly little companion robot capable of remembering your name. He can be used for fun or educational purposes and was featured in many viral videos alongside his cousin Vector. 

Collaborative robots

The clue is in the name here – collaborative robots, or cobots for short, are made to work alongside production workers. These nifty robots are designed to carry out repetitive tasks that would otherwise be harmful or tedious. This could be anything from packaging to welding. 

Having cobots work alongside general staff is the perfect way to reduce or eliminate workplace risks. Dirty and dangerous work can be delegated to cobots, whilst the more manual jobs can be carried out by general staff. 

  • Sawyer – complete with a friendly face, Sawyer is incredibly precise and able to carry out tasks such as circuit board testing and machine tending. He is best known for his flexibility and ease of use. 
  • ABB Yumi – this robot is the first cobot to feature two arms rather than just one. The ABB Yumi can be used across a range of industries but is best known for its impeccable precision and grip. 

Consumer robots

You don’t need to own heavy machinery to have your share of robot fun. Consumer robots are the group of robots that are readily available for anyone to purchase and use. So, what does a consumer robot look like? 

  • Roomba – these handy little robots are autonomous vacuum cleaners that can navigate your home without human intervention. They’re able to map your home and remember the paths so that they can do a full clean at the press of a button.
  • Aibo – this robot is unique; unlike the common human-like features that some robots have, this robot is built in the shape of a dog. Aibo is made to closely mimic the actions and emotions of a real dog, so it is perfect for those who aren’t allowed real pets! 

This is, of course, just a handful of robot types and examples of robots in everyday life. Some other types of robots include military robots, transportation robots, medical robots, and farming robots. The opportunities are endless. Do you have any specific intentions for your robot? 

How to make a robot

By now, you’re probably getting excited to start your robot project. We’ve seen what they’re capable of and how interesting the world of robotics is. So, let’s dive into how to make a robot. 

A common robot project for beginners is that of the mini bug bot. This super simple robot uses only a handful of items and is very easy to start with. To make a mini bug bot, you’ll need:

  • A battery
  • A clothes peg
  • A vibrating motor
  • 4 paper clips (or more depending on how many legs you desire) 
  • Glue
  • Sticky tape

To transform this list into a fully functioning robot friend, you’ll need to start by opening the clothes peg and trapping the motor in the middle. You’ll want to unravel the paper clips and bend them into the leg shape (you can cut them using scissors or clippers to shorten them).

Once your legs are ready, you can glue them to the bug’s underside. The motor will have some stray wires that need to be addressed. That’s where the battery comes in – attach the wires to a battery and secure the battery to the mini bug bot using sticky tape. 

And just like that, you’ve made yourself a robot! You can even make him some antenna using spare wire, or add some googly eyes to add some personality. 

Depending on the complexity of your robot, you may need more materials and tools. Let’s not forget that robots can be sustainable too – why not start by incorporating some unwanted materials from around the house? As long as you have the basic elements of a robot, you can use any number of materials to make the outer body. 

How to build a robot – for beginners

We’ve explored an example of making a super simple robot. But is there an easier way to try your hand at some more complicated robotics? The answer is simple – yes!

For those of you who want a little extra assistance when beginning your robotics journey, there are some ways to simplify the process. One way is to purchase a robot building kit. These typically come with all of the necessary components to build your own robot along with instructions on how to do so. 

But if you want to challenge yourself a little further and build your robot entirely from scratch, we have some other suggestions too. There’s one device that will completely turn around your robot building experience; the raspberry pi

The raspberry pi is a small computer roughly the size of a credit card. It’s affordable and can be programmed to do all kinds of wonderful things. Since it was initially designed to teach children the principles of coding, it is a fantastic starting point for learning how to program a robot. 

How to program a robot

What makes a robot a robot is its ability to carry out its designated tasks without human intervention. But how do we program a robot to understand these tasks? 

We can do this using computer programs. Computer programs act as a set of instructions that guide the robot, telling it what to do. A variety of programming languages can be used to program your robot. However, as we discovered in our open step, the most widely used programming language in robotics is C/C++. 

For beginners, we recommend getting started with a raspberry pi for your robot programming needs. The programming language the raspberry pi uses is Python, so it’s worth learning the basics of Python programming before you start. 

Useful courses

Following along with a course is a great way to start building your robot. It gives you the freedom to create something completely your own whilst guiding you through the process. 

To learn how to program your very own robot buggy using a raspberry pi, check out our Build and Program Your First Robot Buggy course. Not only is the course provided by the Raspberry Pi Foundation themselves, but it’ll teach you how to connect motors, add sensors and write algorithms. 

Another useful course is our Introduction to Machine Learning and AI course, which will provide you with the knowledge to train your own AI. 

Final thoughts

It’s true that building a robot sounds like a daunting task – but as we’ve discovered today, it’s more than possible to do, even if you’re a beginner. Hopefully, by now you feel ready to start on your exciting robot project. 

Will you try making a social robot? Or perhaps an educational robot? If you’d like to explore robotics a little further before starting your project, take a look at our Begin Robotics course. It provides insight into the history, anatomy, and intelligence of robots. 

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