A group of Harvard University researchers — Michael Rubenstein, Bo Cimino, and Radhika Nagpal — have developed an $11 tool to educate young Makers on the fundamentals of robotics. Dubbed AERobot (short for Affordable Education Robot), the team hopes that it will one day help inspire more kids to explore STEM disciplines.
Fueled by the recent emergence of the Maker Movement, robots are becoming increasingly popular throughout schools in an effort to spur interest in programming and artificial intelligence among students.
The idea behind this particular project was conceived following the 2014 AFRON ellenge, which encouraged researchers to design low-cost robotic systems for education in Third World countries. As Wired’s Davey Alba notes, Rubenstein’s vast experience in swarm robotics led to him modding one of his existing systems to construct the so-called AERobot. While it may not be a swarm bot, the single machine possesses a number of the same inexpensive components.
So, what is the AERobot capable of doing?
- Moving forward and backward on flat, smooth surfaces
- Turning in place in both directions
- Detecting the direction of incoming light
- Identifying distances using reflected infrared light
- Following lines and edges
With a megaAVR 8-bit microcontroller as its brains, the team assembled most of its other electronic parts with a pick-and-place machine, and to reduce costs some more, used vibration motors for locomotion and omitted chassis. AERobot is equipped with a built-in USB plug that also enables it to be directly inserted into any computer with a USB port — unlike a number of other bots.
“Using this USB connection, it can recharge its lithium-ion battery and be reprogrammed all without any additional hardware. AERobot has holonomic 2D motion; using two low-cost vibration motors, it can move forward, backwards, and turn in place on a flat, smooth surface such as a table or whiteboard. It also has three pairs of outward-pointing infrared transmitters and phototransistors, allowing it to detect distance to obstacles using reflected infrared light, and passively detect light sources using just the phototransistors.”
In addition, the bot features one downward-pointing infrared transmitter along with a trio of infrared receivers to detect the reflectivity of the surface below, which is useful for line following. To aid in learning programs and debugging, AERobot also boasts an RGB LED.
On the software side, AERobot uses a graphical programming environment, which makes reprogramming easy for beginners. By modifying the minibloqs programming language, Rubenstein says you don’t really need to type code, instead you just drag pictures. He went on to tell Wired, “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 color.”