Daniel Gentleman went to the Parallax Robotics and Microcontrollers Expo in April, and he wrote the following trip report for Makezine.
National Robotics Week continues to gain popularity and expose new people to the wide range of robotics. With that in mind, electronics and robotic kit manufacturer Parallax decided to contribute and host their own Parallax Expo. As a fan of their sensors and their new Arduino bot, I decided to visit their Rocklin, California office for the event.
This is Parallax’s first expo of this size. Previously, the Unofficial Propeller Expo West was put on for only an afternoon by Parallax, but the event was greatly expanded for this year. while small compared to huge events like Maker Faire, the more focused topics and smaller crowd made it easy to take in all the events without battles for parking or long lines.
The expo included about 8-10 outdoor tents, several areas indoors for presentations and demonstrations, tours through the Parallax office, and space behind the office for both rolling and flying robot demos and competitions. Robotics groups Phoenxtrix.org and Sacramento Area Robotics Groups were around to show off their creations. Several other companies with related products like Panavise and Schmartboard offered product demonstrations. Vendor space was small, but the Parallax catalog was available. For the items I wanted that were not on display, they simply sent someone to the warehouse to fetch them. All the while, dozens of robots of various shapes and sizes skittered around the ground and on demonstration tables.
The most represented population at the Expo was the 8- to 15-year-old age group with many events tagged to satisfy requirements of the Boy Scouts’ Robotics merit badge. The two hands-on demonstrations (soldering and coding) stations were always filled with enthusiastic experimenters. The lectures were quick but pointed, sticking to their topics and speaking to their target audience. Throughout the entire event, I participated in and overheard conversations about ideas and invention. A brief conversation with Joe Grand (right), designer of Parallax’s laser range sensor, was especially interesting in that he hacked the range sensor’s camera to take photos which then printed to a Game Boy printer.
The Parallax office tour showed the entire production of their kits. This ranged from CNC milling, laser cutting, electronics silk screening, and automatic soldering to packaging and warehousing. The technical support area looked fun as it was surrounded by all the toys produced by Parallax.
After three hours, I felt I was done for the day — then the flying robots fired up. At least a score of youngsters crowded of the back of the building to watch a compressor powered paintball Gatling gun get outmaneuvered by a remotely controlled Parallax ELEV-8 quadcopter. The competitions that followed could have used more entrants, but the variations of robotic technique and style made them entertaining.
For their first event of this kind, Parallax did well. Next year, I hope to see more hobby robotics groups showing off, more home tinkerers entering competitions, and maybe even more kits and toys on sale. As it stands, the Parallax Expo is highly recommended for hobbyists, tweens, teachers, parents, or anyone hoping to gather inspiration for a new project.
Daniel Gentleman, better known as ThoughtFix is a UNIX Systems Administrator in Silicon Valley and formerly ran two blogs on mobile Internet devices. His current focus is on hobby robotics and open source hardware hacking. His projects can typically be found on thoughtfix.com