Bruce Waters

Bill Knapp, secretary of the Robot Group, tinkers with a circuit board at a group meeting on Thursday. Small circuit boards like this one can be progammed to do anything from flashing LED lights to operating much larger robotic contraptions.

Photo Credit: Thomas Allison | Daily Texan Staff

As a lover of science fiction, Don Colbath couldn’t say no to helping his dad with everything.

He assembled televisions and was always up for a new do-it-yourself project.

“I’m just a general nerd,” said Colbath, president of The Robot Group. “I like everything technical from robots to airplanes and anything else in between.”

The Robot Group started in 1989 at the former Austin science museum Discovery Hall. The robotics members continued their interests despite the eventual disbandment of the museum. Now, the group members meet every Thursday night to discuss building, how to deal with financial aspects and also their love of the hobby.

“We teach that simpler is better,” said group member David Treadwell. “When you have such a short time frame to build, it’s much easier to just save the complexities.”

The group mostly consists of men in their 50s just wanting a group of friends with the same interest. However, the group also attracts children to come learn with their parents and those that appreciate the value of destroying and rebuilding.

“I want to hang out with people that won’t get mad if I take apart their stuff,” Treadwell said. “We only sometimes put it back together.”

Most group members use microprocessing to incorporate the sophistication of computer programming into the simple design of the robotics devices. With microprocessing, the members feed digital data into their robots, where the information is then stored in the memory, resulting in a robot that can paint, wheel around the room or even make noise.

“In order to make something have a behavior, it’s very easy to write some sort of software that tells the robot what to do,” said group member Bruce Waters. “There’s still some people out there using analog and solar cells for power and that’s just not as easy.”

Most of the members tend to build their robotics individually but will still collaborate on implementation techniques and ask around for supplies. Because of the expensive nature of the building supplies, the members rely on each other for the tools they need.

“We tend to try to think out of the box as much as possible,” Colbath said. “We often times go to Home Depot and find cheap tools that will do the trick.”

Regardless of whether or not the members had building experience before, someone will almost always step up and help out those unsure with their robotics blueprints. The club notes how difficult building can be, yet the members continue to come back each week with even loftier goals.

“There’s always someone who comes in with these grandiose ideas and no idea how to implement it,” Colbath said. “There’s always those people that come in with a few parts and expect to make something talk, but it’s just not that easy.”

Contrary to common belief, background in electrical engineering and other sciences isn’t required to have success with the hobby. Current members have degrees ranging in ecology and physics to laser shop owners and even leather salesmen.

“We’re all here to help each other and learn from our trials and tribulations,” Waters said. “As far as having to know anything really specific, you just don’t need it.”

The members have their robotics give back to the community by sending members with their completed projects to local schools. In addition to showing students how to build, many attend science fairs and maker fairs.

“Our outreach to the young people is critical since, basically, the entire world is outrunning us,” Waters said. “We always bring out the projects that really speak to the younger generation.”

Unlike many builders in the area, the club members generally do not participate in robot wars, a form of competition in which one robot ends up destroyed. They believe that these wars are destructive while also creating too competitive of an environment.

“We don’t tend to be really competitive; this is just a gathering of nerds,” Colbath said. “Some come because they just want to talk about science and watch others build. We don’t want to hack our projects to death.”

Many of the group members agreed that putting the right amount of time and effort into each project is crucial for its success. Colbath has been working on one of his projects for 10 years and still hasn’t finished it because of smaller projects that come up on the side.

All of the group members bring their own diverse technological expertise to the group, enabling members to learn new skills from friends while also expanding their knowledge on robotics. The members refer to themselves as “skill collectors” and believe with a large collection comes the ability to create anything.

“We all have this problem of collecting stuff; it speaks to us and tells us what we’re going to make out of it,” Waters said. “Your imagination is never limited — most of us are working on projects in the order of 100s all the time. All you need is a project that elicits interests, and people will be enthralled.”