by Gordy Slack
Kids love robots almost as much as they love candy. Combining the two makes the Suckerbot “irresistible,” says Ken Goldberg, the craigslist Distinguished Professor of New Media at UC Berkeley. The Suckerbot (seen above) is a lollipop-decked, wheeled, educational robot entry in the African Robotics Network’s $10 Robot Competition. “It is a fresh approach,” says Goldberg.
Fresh, irresistible, and outside the box are what Goldberg and Ayorkor Korsah, an assistant professor of computer science at Ashesi University in Ghana, were looking for when they launched the competition last summer in a search for ways to overcome high prices that have put a crimp on robotics education in the developing world. They were hoping to defy design and material barriers, but they had not thought of adding candy…until this entry, made by Thomas Tilley of Thailand.
While on sabbatical in Ghana last Spring, Goldberg met Korsah and a group of her university students, who were working with Lego Mindstorms robots. “The students were very sophisticated, talented, and smart,” says Goldberg. But because Lego robots cost about $250 each, it was difficult for schools or after-school programs to acquire them without external assistance, and in the quantities needed to work with entire classrooms of students.
There is a thriving marketplace for technology in Ghana. The lively market in refurbished computers meant many Ghanaian students have their own laptops, observed Goldberg. “Roadside stands sell stacks of inexpensive, refurbished, shrink-wrapped IBM laptops that were a few years old but worked fine.” But robots of any kind, let alone inexpensive educational robots, are nowhere to be found in Ghana.
At Ashesi University, Goldberg and Korsah first brainstormed about the value to students of an inexpensive robot. “Since high schools in Ghana are generally under-resourced, an inexpensive robot would go a long way,” Korsah says. “Students would actually be able to purchase the robots and take them home with them extending their learning beyond our classroom,” she says. “Furthermore, our high school partners could build on the program through robotics clubs and other activities in their schools.”
Korsah and Goldberg, who together formed the African Robotics Network (AFRON), launched the $10 Robot Competition in order to plug into the genius for innovation and practical problem solving they see throughout Africa and many other parts of the developing world.
“If Raspberry Pi Computers can sell a unit for $35, then we should be able to get a programmable, school-worthy robot way down from $250,” says Goldberg. “We set a target at $10, but we were willing to consider any proposal below $100.”
At the annual IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May 2012, Korsah and Goldberg announced the competition and described the prizes that had been donated by Raspberry Pi and the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. Word of the contest spread fast, as did word about the new African Robotics Network (AFRON) which supports robotics research and education throughout Africa. Six months after its formation, AFRON has more than 300 members.
Korsah and Goldberg wanted to keep the contest’s rules as simple as possible. Contestants had only to track the cost of their materials, to restrict themselves to open-sourced software, and to describe and document their robots in detail on a website. The competition, which accepted entries from June 15 to September 15, was covered in Wired (“Can a $10 Robot Save African Education?” July 13, 2012) and the IEEE Spectrum (“African Project Aims To Innovate in Educational Robotics” May 1, 2012) but still Korsah and Goldberg were uncertain how many people would actually submit robots.
“I do not know how to make a $10 robot. I had no idea where to start,” says Goldberg. “So I was not about to suggest how others should approach it.”
By mid September, AFRON had received 28 entries that were wildly diverse in materials, philosophical approach, country of origin, and design aesthetic. A few were submitted by teams from top institutions like Harvard and MIT, but most from people or groups that roboticists Korsah and Goldberg had never heard of.
The contest had three categories: tethered, roaming, and all-in-one, and an international jury judged all entries. The winners were announced at the Maker Faire in New York City in September. The Suckerbot, now on display in the CITRIS Tech Museum, won first prize in the tethered robot category. The tether in this case is the USB cable built into a Sony PlayStation game controller that serves as the robot’s body. Thomas Tilley of Thailand picked up the used controller at a surplus store for about $5. He converted the internal vibration motors into drive trains for wheels, which he made from recovered bottle tops. The lollipops, which are stuck into the thumb switches of the controller, act as counterweights. When the unit bumps into something, the lollipops fall forward and send a signal to the controller. A line sensor is patched into the other thumb stick; the robot can be programmed to track along a path. The whole thing is designed to be built from scratch for a total of $8.96, says Tilley’s website, which includes detailed instructions.
“What kid could resist a robot with two functional lollipops? It’s a magnet. The idea is to get kids excited about engineering and science at an extremely low cost,” says Goldberg.
Winning second prize in the tethered category was a modular robot called the Baobot, into which students can plug different sensors to observe and program different behaviors. “The Boabot could be ordered pre-assembled,” says Korsah, “or students can also learn a little about electronics by assembling Boabot from a kit.”
Winner of the roaming category was the Kilobot, a coin-sized robot that uses vibration motors that move it along on smooth surfaces. Kilobots cost about $43 a piece, but their true colors shine only when you have a swarm of them that can communicate with each other and engage in “social” behavior. Kilobots also have onboard light sensors and built in microprocessors which can be programmed in C. The Kilobot’s Harvard team has been working on the robot for years.
The MITBot, submitted by a team in India, won the all-in-one category with a modular kit made of plastic parts that could be configured into a lot of different designs. The cost: $33. That is $217 less than the Lego Mindstorms Robot, also a modular.
“Even our more expensive entries lowered the price by an order of magnitude,” says Goldberg.
Korsah and Goldberg are now raising money for the competition’s second round in Summer 2013, which will encourage entrants to design software and curricula for the prize-winning robots.
Their hope is that the final product will be manufactured in Africa, say Korsah and Goldberg. If that is going to happen, though, someone will have to act fast; one Chinese company has already expressed interest in manufacturing the Suckerbot. The retail price the company proposed was $50, too much for Korsah’s and Goldberg’s taste. But still, five times less than Lego Mindstorms.
To learn more, see the top placing robots, enter the next competition, or to join AFRON, please visit the AFRON website. The winning designs will be on display at UC Berkeley in the CITRIS Tech Museum until March 15, 2013.
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