How do you build a working robot in a day as a holiday programme? Especially when you have a wide range of students, some of them who have never done any robotics / engineering before!

Bring in Jack Penman, an engineer and parent living on the Kapiti Coast who runs a robotics club at the local college. He had a plan for the day which I was assisting with the proceedings. The idea was to construct ( rather than worry about teaching / learning programming) a very practical robot using simple servos / motors and using an advanced version of the Arduino, called the ESP. The advantage of the chip is the built in WiFi module which you can connect with a simple TCP/UDP app on your Android phone. This takes out the big worry of connectivity, compatibility and installing the Arduino IDE. I believe a web based interface is planned for it too as most students have BYOD policies at their schools which means they usually have a chromebook (rather than iPads, which I have rarely seen in the recent years). 

We also had Jane, Technology teacher at the college who assisted with the mechanics of building the robot. The first part of the day was dedicated to learning the system. Using simple LED’s and a phone, we made them blink using commands over the WiFi (through TCP, but we didn’t get into details of how it all works as the focus was construction). Eventually by morning tea, students were controlling motors and servos through the app. Students had also created designs of their build. We divided them into groups based on the part they were building. Chassis, Arm, Gripper and Controller. They used a range of Lego, Meccano, MDF and metal spares, most of which Jack has recylced over time. 

By early afternoon we had a few of the parts coming along together. The big challenge is the amalgamation of all of the components and ensuring they all work in cohesion. As each of the component had its own ESP module, the commands were simplified for the students so all they had to do to make them talk to each other was something like A1 1(Analog1 turn on)|btp2 (button press 2) |46 (the IP of the other ESP)| etc. This made life simpler to focus only on engineering the robot (courtesy Jack who has spent hours to build the software side of the project). It appeals to students who are interested in constructing and may not have the interest in coding. 

At 5pm, after 8 hours, we had a working robot which was picking rubbish. Well, sort of. 🙂 Finetuning needed especially with driver and controller skills. There is a detailed writeup by Jack on their group page. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or you would like to run a programme like this at your school.

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