While this isn't one of the most fun parts about robotics, it is essential. For a while, I lived under the impression that I could do robotics without knowing anything about electronics. But, I found out that I was wrong pretty soon. Don't get me wrong, you don't have to have an EE degree, but you do need to know some of the basics. Getting Started In Electronics by Forrest Mimms is an excellent resource for this. You can find a review of this book here. There's also helpful online electronics tutorials.
In order to have a good start into robotics, you will need to start growing your library right off the bat. Getting the right books will provide invaluable help. Robot Building for Beginners is a good starting point. An absolute must-have book is Robot Builder's Bonanza. You'll also want to get some magazine subscriptions. Robot Magazine is great for beginners, along with Servo Magazine. You'll also find other interesting books, on our books page.
This is probably one most important points of this whole article. Stay small! Resist the urge to let your mind run wild with possibilities of cooking robot that will dust and vacuum at the same time. You need to start off small. Try putting some motors onto a base (like some AOL CDs or a breadboard from Radio Shack or Jameco) and running them with a Basic Stamp or an OOPic. If you're more the kit type, you will find an impressive selection at RobotShop, Lynxmotion, Parallax, Rogue Robotics, and Budget Robotics. If you don't have any electronics or mechanics experience I'd recommend getting a kit.
If you've never programmed before, you're in a bit of trouble, because you'll have to learn in order to do robotics, well, mostly. However, LEGO Mindstorms offers and an excellent resource for the totally illiterate. I have never heard anything bad about this product and HIGHLY recommend it. Plus, if you advance beyond its capabilities, there are tons of great websites and books about hacking it for other uses. You can buy the Mindstorms 2.0 kit here, or wait till Aug. 2006 to get the new version, Mindstorms NXT. VEX Robotics Kit is also a good starting point. I don't have any personal experience with it, but I've heard good things.
After you're initial robot or so, you'll need to start to plan for a robot that will actually do something. Part of the problem for a lot of people is that they never plan their robot ahead of time. When you have definite goals in mind, i.e. "I want my robot to patrol the house at night", you are much more motivated and interested in finishing. A great way to do this is to enter your robot into a contest. Mini Sumo, and the international Fire-Fighting Contest are excellent choices. Many clubs have annual contests and events.
Make yourself work on your robots regularly, especially if you're entering a contest! Coming back to a project after weeks of ignoring it is tough. Take that time to think about the project and plan. It will help, even if it's just for a few minutes before bed. Also, keep a regular journal of what you've done. Documenting your work is important.
Take a look at our top mistakes with building a robot list and know what to avoid.
This is probably the second most important point in this article. Take it from one - Being a tightwad, or cheap person, isn't good. You may save a few dollars, but you will lose so much more with the extra time and frustration involved in being cheap. Don't get me wrong, you should always look for bargains, but if that involves desoldering components off of circuit boards, as opposed to spending $5 at Digi-Key, just give up. I've learned this lesson the hard way. Robotics isn't a cheap hobby, and sometime you'll have to face the facts. You're time and sanity are worth more.
Sign up to our community and just ask questions. You'll learn more that way than from any book or website. Questions are never stupid. Don't be shy. No one ever gets good enough where they don't have to ask questions sometime. The forums at Robot Magazine are a good place to start. Also, the RS Community forum, here, especially the Let's Make Robot section here, which is dedicated to Project Ideas, Project Showcases, Beginners, etc.
Don't make the rest of the world learn everything the hard way. That's the beauty of the internet. If you've figured something out, write an article, create a Tutorial or a Robot post. Let others know. Sheesh, that's the reason you're reading this right now, I'm letting you know how to do things the right way.
The RobotShop Community is an excellent place to do this. Take a look around!
If you're interested in writing an article or review, don't hesitate! Don't worry if you don't have any experience, that's what editors are for! We can help you out: share your ideas in the Project Ideas section or start a conversation here in the Community section.