Robots today are roving Mars, collecting data in dangerous environments, hoovering our floors, lifting patients in hospital, building cars and entertaining us in films. And, if you share Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking’s world view, the super intelligent ones may one day bring about the end of the human race.

We’ve all heard about them, but how many of us know what makes a robot a robot? And can anyone get a robot to do a particular task?

An introduction to robotics

If you’d like to find out more, but are worried that you don’t have Hawking’s brain or an advanced qualification in cybernetics, this four week, free online course is for you.

We’re not planning to sit you down with a soldering iron, but we will introduce you to the basics of robot design through a series of simulations that will have you test driving an Eric – our very own University of Reading mobile robot.

How far back does Robot history go?

We’ll start by looking at some of the earliest, real and fictional robots ever invented: from musical automata in 13th century Iraq to Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical lion; from the early 20th century science fiction of “Metropolis” and Asimov to the first Mars lander in 1996.

Look inside a mobile robot

After dipping into robot history, you’ll be ready to get more hands on. Our experts will guide you through the basics. Using a combination of videos, animations, screencasts, articles, discussions and quizzes, you’ll explore the internals of mobile robots.

You’ll find out about the individual components of robot anatomy (the mechanics, electronics and computer “brain”) and how they relate to one another and to the sensors – the parts that enable the machine to perceive its surroundings.

Next, you’ll tackle the motors: how do you control your robot to help it avoid obstacles, head in the right direction and travel at an optimum speed?

A “thinking” machine?

In the final week, you’ll investigate the thought-provoking topic of robot behaviour.

  • What can we learn about developing robots based on what we know about living systems?
  • If we introduce a simple “brain”, what influence does this have on the robot’s behaviour?
  • How is a robot’s movement specified by what it perceives?
  • Can we create robots with basic instincts, and the ability to learn and co-operate with one another?

Come and join us for this action-packed course. We look forward to hearing why you’re interested in finding out more about robots and hope you’ll enjoy meeting many of ours.

Through our weekly video feature, “Meet the Robots at Reading,” you’ll find out more about our collection: from machines built by our students from scratch; to Baxter (the first of a new generation of smarter, more adaptive interactive industrial robots); to one or two special guests, who you may recognise from elsewhere.


This course is taken from our Make it Digital collection – part of the BBC’s major initiative to inspire digital creativity.

This course explores the basics of robotics. It doesn’t assume any prior knowledge and you don’t need to own your own robot to take part.The exercise steps in this course will work using Chrome, Safari, Opera and Firefox browsers. They will also work on Internet Explore 9, 10 and 11 – however, earlier versions of this browser will not support these steps. You must have JavaScript enabled.This course includes video content and other visual teaching methods. As such, blind and visually impaired students may need a helper.Please be aware that this course contains video clips that include sequences of flickering/flashing lights which might affect learners who are susceptible to photosensitive epilepsy.Click here to register for the course.