Steve Norris: Making 'Bots

Steve Norris of loves to make ‘Bots, so much so that he produces one every two months, photographs and writes about them in his blog. (Editor’s Note: Steve has about 20 of them detailed on his site.). As a Contributing Editor at Robot Magazine, he is continually challenging the status quo to create things that have never been seen before.

As an example, one need go no farther than the hilarious RoboStool, the name of which, Steve quickly points out, is quite funny in its own right. So, where did the idea come from?

I’m not really sure, but one day while waiting for my wife to finish shopping in a Bed Bath and Beyond,and totally bored of course, I spied the ultimate in tacky furniture – a cubed-shaped foot stool covered in the finest of brown vinyl. At that moment it occurred to me that this footstool was just begging to be automated. And thus began the RoboStool project.

He goes on: RoboStool has three missions, or modes, if you like. The simplest is the remote control, using my universal remote terminal, called a Robox. Using a pair of 912 Mhz transceivers the terminal sends commands to drive the robot forward, left, right, etc. A Ping measures distance in front to prevent the robot from crashing into walls. The second mode uses my beacon navigation system, which uses infared and not GPS, to guide the robot from point A to point B. This is the same system I’ve used in my Huey Robot. The last is a “follow-me” mode that uses thermal sensing to track and follow a human target. This is the same technology that I used for my Follow-Me Rover and Huey robots.

During the interview it became obvious that Steve is a “dangerous” combination of Right and Left-Brain skills: A wicked sense of humor joined with some very serious tech-chops. Kind of like Bill Cosby meets Bill Gates.

By day, he is a software engineer who works with electronics. By night he makes ‘Bots and really enjoys the confluence of software, microcontrollers, mechanical engineering and creativity.

My ‘Bots always seem to get attention. Maybe that’s because I’m able to impart some personality and reflect my view of the world. I make them from scratch because, quite frankly, kits are boring.

Steve’s basement is full of prior projects. The really successful ones are still in-tact. The not-so-successful ones get recycled.

Next, I asked Steve how he became interested in 3D Printing: I have a pretty decent workshop and felt that I needed a tool with which I could make sophisticated parts that looked really professional. I investigated some 3D printer kits and figured that I would never get around to assembling them because I would try to improve the printer’s design during the build process and would never get it done. I bought an Afinia H-Series in November of 2012 after I’d seen it reviewed in Make Magazine’s Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing. I really liked its looks – well-designed. Not kludgy, like some of the other printers out there. It was also deemed Best Overall Experience, Easiest To Set Up and Easiest To Use. What’s not to like about that?

Steve uses OpenSCAD. He likes it because it’s code-based – just like writing software. The models are “described” in a programming language that is similar to C and he can quickly change parameters to modify his designs. Then he uses an open source application to create the stl file.

Steve’s ‘Bots have gotten national and international attention. He has been featured on Discovery Channel Canada and his ButlerBot Beer Delivery System made a trip to Beverly Hills for an appearance in a promotion for NatGeo’s Mad Scientists. There were 12 episodes with each episode highlighting the work of a “Mad Scientist”. I was one of the twelve.

Where does he think that robotics will go into the future? I don’t think that robot kits will be around for very much longer. People will publish the 3D files and you’ll be able to download them, print the parts and assemble your own ‘Bot. This is already happening in the radio-controlled car and plane space. I’m really excited about what the future holds.

My guess is that we’ll be seeing more of Steve’s creations on TV in the years to come.

So, before you sit on that Bed Bath & Beyond stool, make sure that Steve Norris is not nearby, or, maybe, you should wish that he is!