Mike Rubenstein, in partnership with two other researchers at Harvard University, has created an educational robot that costs only $10.70 to make.
The robot, called AERobot, can help middle and high school students learn programming and artificial intelligence, with the goal of getting more students interested in STEM — subjects that involve science, technology, engineering and math.
The tool comes as part of the coding literacy movement, which hopes to teach programming and other computer skills to students from an early age. The movement comes in all shapes and forms, including a new and simpler programming language to children's books aimed at teaching coding concepts.
AERobot (Affordable Education Robot) was developed during the 2014 AFRON challenge last January, which asked researchers to create a low-cost robot for education in developing countries. Rubenstein had previously studied swarm robotics, which focuses on the creation of a large number of tiny robots that act as a whole, as a member of Harvard's Self-Organizing Systems Research Group. It was by adapting one of his swarm robots that AERobot came to be, as a single robot, but made from a number of the same inexpensive materials.
A pick-and-place machine, typically used to automatically build printed circuit boards, was used to assemble most of the electronics. Costs were lowered even further through the use of vibration motors from locomotion and leaving out a chassis. In addition, the robot does not include its own programming interface or charger. Both of these are supplied by a desktop computer or laptop with AERobot plugged into a USB port.
A programming language called minibloqs was adapted for its software, which uses a more graphical way of programming machines.
"You don't really need to type code. You drag pictures," he explains. "Say I wanted an LED on the robot to turn green. I would just drag over an image of an LED, and pick the green colour."
He went on to say that the language was similar to Scratch, a programming language for kids that was developed at MIT.
The robot is capable of moving forward, backward, spinning in circles, detecting light, following lines and edges, as well as identifying distances through the use of reflected infrared light. By commanding the robot to do these simple tasks, the creators hope that kids will learn programming.
A 15 lesson curriculum has been provided by Rubenstein and his research team that will take students through sensors, actuators, programming, and exactly how to replicate particular robot behavior.
AERobot won the top honor at the AFRON challenge for software and came in second for hardware and curriculum. It has since been tested on 100 sixth through eighth graders who were in attendance during a STEM-focused summer camp called i2Camp. Further testing has been planned for this summer. The group is working to improve the curriculum and software, making the robot simple enough to use without the help of a teacher.