Pet Companion Robot using RDS

Building a Pet Companion

When my wife and I both worked fulltime, we had to leave our dog Darwin home alone for 7-8 hours every day, so I decided to build a pet companion to keep him company. Primarily, I wanted to build something that would entertain Darwin, but I also thought it would be fun to create something that would allow me to check on him from work.

My vision for a pet companion was actually less of a robot and more of a remotely operated vehicle.  In fact, the only autonomous behavior in the robot is its ability to find and pick up a ball and reload the ball launcher.  Most importantly, I wanted to be able to interact with the remote environment and have fun doing it.  The “fun” aspect was the most important and had a lot of impact on my design decisions.

I started with the Microsoft Robotics reference platform and the Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio software. My process for designing and building the robot was basically trial and error.  I didn’t have the skills to use 3D modeling programs well enough to be effective, so I would embrace an idea and give it a try.  I built early prototypes using “instant gratification” processes and materials.  In fact, the first prototype was built almost entirely of cardboard and hot glue. Once I had a design that seemed to fit and function, I upgraded to chemically welded styrene and aluminum parts.  In some cases, it took several major iterations before I found a design that actually worked.  In fact, while the current treat dispenser seems pretty simple today, it is actually the third major iteration that I built to completion because the first two had jamming issues.

Building a robot is a challenging endeavor, especially for someone like me who has little electronics experience, no mechanical engineering knowledge, and a limited budget.  I would categorize my most common struggles into two areas, first and probably foremost was budget.

Early on in the project, I was actually focusing on getting the robot to work using a BasicX microcontroller and an IP-enabled web cam (because I happened to already have those things lying around). I spent many hours trying to build a pan/tilt for the big bulky web cam and trying to program my BasicX to be a decent servo controller (let alone network server etc.).  Much of this work turned out to be a waste of time compared to the relatively meager cost of good servo controllers and cheap netbook PCs.  One key lesson learned is I should not shy away from spending a few bucks to achieve my vision.

The second major frustration that kept rearing its head was part fabrication.  In many cases, I thought up a design for a part or component, only to be frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t make it work! I spent many hours at the local home improvement, toy and hobby stores trying to find an available product that had what I needed.  This issue definitely killed many of my ideas.  But, learning from my first challenge, I recently ordered a RepRap Mendel 3D printer and am hopeful this will be less of an issue in the future.

Overall, designing and building a pet companion was a fantastic learning experience and was a lot of fun. Now if I can only get the pet companion to walk my dog for me…

This article was written by Jordan Correa, a Test Developer on the Robotics Team. Jordan’s robot has evolved through several iterations with a lot of hand-built hardware and custom software. You can view a video about Jordan’s robot at

Comments (3)

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  2. Robin says:

    The argument on whether robots will take jobs from human have been fierce since long time ago, when some believe with the rapid development of technology, robots will be improved to a more intelligent level that all kinds of jobs will be taken over by them; While the others claim there’s no need to worry too much about that since technology will create new jobs in the meantime of killing the old……/attention-please-these-professions-are-taking-over-by-robots

  3. Ann says:

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