Students interested in experimenting with robotics have a few options at their fingertips. One is Lego Mindstorm, packed with the creative potential of Lego pieces, plus motors, sensors, and a programmable computer to bring them to life. But at $300 per kit, the cost is prohibitive for people in impoverished communities.
Young minds in developing countries are no less curious, though. So to give them access to tools and the chance to experiment, a number hackers, students, and hobbyists from around the world have gone to work to prove that robot building can be cheaper—and accessible to all. They are members of the newly launched African Robotics Network (AFRON), and they just completed the network’s first challenge: to design a $10 robotics kit. AFRON just announced the winners.
“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, a computer science professor at Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana, who co-founded the network. “If you put this challenge to robotics enthusiasts or robotics researchers all over the world, what can they come up with? Can they actually make robots that cost $10?”
AFRON launched in May and now has more than 300 members in 25 countries. Korsah and her co-founder, Ken Goldberg, a professor of robotics, art, and new media at the University of California, Berkeley, put the word out to robotics organizations worldwide that they were looking for a cheap kit. And to their surprise, dozens of entries poured in.
“The designs far exceeded our expectations,” Goldberg says. “We set $10 as a kind of inspirational target, and we had no idea anybody would get even close to it.” As for the designs, Goldberg says, “they were tremendous … people devoted hundreds of hours to the designs. [With] the grand winner, the Suckerbot, anybody with $10 and some time can sit down and make it.”
IEEE’s Robotics and Automation Society put together a $3000 pot for the winners. But robot builders, like 3D printing ethusiasts, Linux fans, and anyone who programs things, tend to be zealous volunteers of their shop hours and their online advice. Now, AFRON is hoping for the same kind of enthusiasm from entrepreneurs. The network has a portfolio of cheap robot designs that it would like to see mass-produced as kits and educational curriculum for students.