Soon, students anywhere in the world may be able to afford to build a robot. The African Robotics Network, or AFRON, conducted a budget build challenge: put together a kit using mostly off-the-shelf parts, with a price point of $10 or less. Now, how-to instructions for all of the winning designs are available on its site, freely available for anyone to use. And AFRON’s leadership is now seeking entrepreneurs and manufacturers to mass produce these kits for sale worldwide to schools with tiny budgets for robotics.
“The designs far exceeded our expectations,” said Ken Goldberg, a professor of robotics, art and new media at the University of California, Berkeley. “We set the $10 as a kind of inspirational goal and we had no idea anybody would get even close to it.”
The competition today is Lego Mindstorm kits, which sets the standard for robotics in education, especially in grade schools. Mindstorm animates Lego pieces using modules of sensors and motors with a programmable computer to guide them. The problem is that they cost about $300 each, which puts them out of reach for many schools in developing countries.
Robotics education has a toehold in African schools already, but growth in the field has been stymied in part by the high cost of kits. To support robotics fans on the continent, the network, AFRON, launched in May and now has more than 300 members in 25 countries. The robotics challenge was an experiment to find out whether the cost of kits could come down.
“This whole idea was, supposing we could make a really, really cheap robot kit. What could it be used for, and how could it be useful in the classroom?” says Ayorkor Korsah, AFRON’s other co-founder and a computer science professor at Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana.
Ultra-low-cost kits require a creative use of materials. The winners make use of Arduinos and cheap micro-controllers, cardboard, a hacked joystick, toy cars and trucks and even lollipops.
These kinds of low-cost solutions should make robotics education more accessible worldwide, says Alexander Reben, creator of the winning designs, the Afrobot.
“I think each robot that won is actually tailored to different learning environments,” Reben says. “The focus of these robots and this competition is not really on design, it is more about a curriculum to foster creative learning in engineering for developing nations.
“It would be great to have manufacturers and other companies come together and donate some parts to make it actually happen. A $0 robot would be best,” Reben says.
These are some of the winning designs that caught our attention. All of the winners are listed at AFRON’s site, and Goldberg announces the winners and shows footage of the robots in action on YouTube.
“The robot is essentially a USB joystick with the sides cut off to expose the rumble motors and these are used to drive two wheels,” explains Thomas Tilley, an information technology instructor at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, who designed the Suckerbot.
The Suckerbot costs $8.96 in parts and took first place in the tethered category. It takes its name from two lollipops that protrude like crab eyes from the thumbsticks. One of the lollipops serves as a weight for a bump sensor. When the Suckerbot makes a sudden stop against an obstacle, the candy tilts forward and trips the thumbstick where it is attached, which signals that an obstacle is there.
Suckerbot has a line-following circuit that allows it to move along a line drawn onto the floor or table.
To keep the cost down, a piece of cardboard serves as the circuit board. The cardboard is printed with a diagram of where to place the components, and students overlay the gear following the printout.
Goldberg absolutely loves the design, he says.
“I never in all my years with robotics have seen candy integrated with a robot. And it’s a function, the lollipops work as counter weight to create inertial forces when the robots bump into something. At the same time, when a kid walks into a room, he sees two lollipops sitting there,” Goldberg says.
Incidentally, Tilley is a veteran joystick hacker. He has about a dozen joystick-based devices, including a wooden Dance Dance Revolution mat and a voting machine.
N-Bot is a robot controlled by sound. It can be voice controlled and programmed with audio tones from a computer’s speakers.
The design upcycles materials by mounting onto an old toy car or truck. Other parts include a whistle, a tire patch and a handful of one-cent resistors, but no micro-controllers. Including optional line-following sensors, the cost is about $14.50.
N-Bot may be one of the simplest robots to construct, especially for a robotics club with a sparse tool kit. The only tools required for assembly are a screwdriver, pliers, scissors and a computer.
Early prototypes hauled a smart phone, a tablet or even a netbook computer which served as the brains of the device, and that option is still available in this latest version. Otherwise, students can program their N-Bot using a text-based interface on the design team’s Web site. When they’ve finished programming, the site emits sounds to transmit instructions to the robot.
“N-Bot uses an audio interface to read sensors and control actuators, so any device can be used as a control computer, even an MP3 player,” says Rafael Aroca, who developed N-Bot at Natalnet Laboratory at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Natal, Brazil.
SwarmRobots are stripped down, tiny robots designed to be cheap and plentiful and work together in – you guessed it – swarms. They are a work in progress at the Xinchejian Hackerspace in Shanghai, China and the swarming, cooperative behavior is still on the horizon.
Individual swarmbots are here today, however. They are Arduino microcontrollers fitted with a motor and wheels made of bottle caps. Their parts cost about $9.50. And for a couple of dollars more, you can upgrade with an infrared “shield,” as Arduino add-ons are called, that allows SwarmRobot to detect objects and communicate with other robots.
“Xinchejians’ SwarmRobot team are continuing to develop more features such as wireless charging and processor variations (ATMEL 32u4) which all demonstrate the incredible flexibility of the platform,” says Spencer Featherstone, a member of Xinchcejian.
The cute little Baobot is built around an Arduino and sports curvy antenna-like bump sensors front and back. It is customizable with modular add-ons and its cost comes in at $18 to $30.
“We wanted the Baobot to have room to grow, and we wanted it to be an educational tool for beginners and advanced programmers/engineers alike,” says one of the robot’s designers, Carlos (no last name given) from Washington, DC.
The robot has built-in ports to connect new modules like programmable sensors. It also has a multipurpose USB port for programming, tethered control and power. And with an optional battery pack, it can move autonomously.
Carlos says its flexibility is Baobot’s most outstanding feature.
“With the modular connectors and the multi-purpose USB port, Baobot provides educational value no matter the configuration,” Carlos says. And, he says, “The weirdest feature is the bump switches! We decided to make custom spring & pin switches. They sort of make Baobot look more like a BeetleBot.”
As pictured, Afrobot looks deceptively simple, like a cardboard box on wheels. But the key concept is the cardboard, and all of its creative potential. It doesn’t have to be a box, it could be any shape in which you can cut and glue cardboard. It could be a rolling bowling pin or, with an extra motor, a rolling fan, for example. Cardboard may even be how a low-cost kit can start to compete with Lego Mindstorm in the number of possible designs.
“The key design feature is a lack of design features,” says Alexander Reben, who designed Afrobot. “That is to say that the platform allows for complete customization since it is made of cardboard and is essentially a kit of parts.” Cardboard, he says, is “a very robust and easy to use material that is easily obtainable in Africa.”
Reben’s submission is really a kind of meta design that encapsulates the soul of the competition. As a low-cost kit of parts, it becomes a creativity-driven, wide-open platform for robotics education that is accessible to nearly everyone.
A version of this article originally appeared at Engineering for Change, a community of innovative thinkers, makers and advocates working to improve the quality of life all over the world.