Open Source Tracked Robot Supports STEM in Africa

A lot of hacker projects start with education in mind. The Raspberry Pi, for example, started with the goal of making an affordable classroom computer. The Shrimp is a UK-based bare-bones Arduino targeted at schools. We recently saw an effort to make a 3D printed robotic platform aimed at African STEM education: The Azibot.

Azibot has 3D printed treads, a simple gripper arm, and uses an Arduino combined with Scratch. Their web site has the instructions on how to put together the parts and promises to have the custom part of the software available for download soon.

We’d bet most Hackaday readers won’t need the software, anyway. The robot clearly uses RC servos for the drive and the little arm at the front, so controlling it directly from the Arduino ought to be easy enough. If you don’t want to roll your own, Senegal-based Azibot is taking preorders for kits for $99. We were a little surprised you couldn’t kick in a little more when you ordered to subsidize other kits for schools in need.

We talked about another low-cost school aimed project, the Shrimp, If you think the needy schools won’t have 3D printers, maybe this 3D printer could come to the rescue.

16 thoughts on “Open Source Tracked Robot Supports STEM in Africa

  1. “African STEM education”

    What an ignorant blanket statement. Where in Africa, exactly?? Africa is an enormous continent containing 54 countries. It is a very diverse place.

    I wonder how USAmericans would react if someone designed a product aimed at the poor in Mexico and said it was for “North American STEM education”. I guess that example isn’t really the best because USAmericans think they own the word “America” too.

    1. Well, honestly, I thought it was a bit odd myself. However, I was quoting the web site which clearly says: A robot kit for every African classroom. They are in Senegal (as I mentioned) so I presume they know the best way to state their goals.

      1. I hate to be this guy, but you might want go ensure this article isn’t supporting child labor through the guise of buzzwords like STEM.

        According to UN.org, the $99.00 price tag is more than most families in Senegal make in a month (http://data.un.org/CountryProfile.aspx?crName=Senegal). To me, this really seems like one of those, “you get to experience it while you build it for a kid in another country” products.

        Truly, I hope I am wrong. I hope that the price tag is high so as to include capturing the capital required to create these robots for Senegalese children. But, I would hate to buy another pair of shoes made by a kid that can’t afford them.

    2. Sidy Ndao, who led the team who designed this, is from Dakar originally, got his PhD from RPI and did his postdoc at MIT. In other words, he’s not an idiot. He’s an assistant professor at UNL — I’ve just started working with him on a different project, but from my understanding of the Azibot project, initial deployments will be in Senegal and funded by grants (the robots will be given to student teams). He imagines it spreading through West Africa — and after that, yeah, he’s got his sights set big: he’d love to see it as a core part of STEM education across all the nations of Africa.

      I don’t think there’s anything offensive about his goals of building an open-source project that Africans can 3D print and build to teach children about STEM concepts.

      Here’s some more info about the project:
      http://engineering.unl.edu/ndao-works-create-opportunities-children-africa-through-robotics/

      1. Absolutely Fantastic. This is much like the Lego MindStorm format that my kid is involved in.

        Thank you for providing the background information. I have rarely been happier to have been wrong.

  2. Cringing at the “3D printers to the rescue” angle.

    It’s a standardised robot base. You should not be using prototyping tools to build them on anything accept a prototyping scale. Even if there isn’t the market to have the bits injection-moulded, you could still cut costs dramatically by taking silicone molds of the originals and casting them in two-part plastic resin.

    I dread to think how many hours are spent printing all those individual identical track segments, even without the high odds of failed prints. Stick a master set to a board, cover in silicone, pull it off and pour on a scree of fastcast. 15minutes later you have a full set. Another 15 minutes, another full set. Another 15 minutes, another full set. Etc, etc.

    Given, you’ll probably need a jig to drill through the dowel holes, but you’re probably going to have to do that anyway with the printed ones.

    Reasonably sure you could cut costs further if you based the main body around a standard ABS project box instead of a full 3D printed enclosure. Again, cutting jig and a couple of minutes to mod it for motor mounting.

    1. 3D printing enables local manufacture, while injection moulding etc. inevitably spells imported from China.

      For a developing country, or any country for that matter, using local resources is preferable to outsourcing even when the outsourcing is immediately cheaper, because the cheapness is illusory. The money you spend locally comes back to you in the form of business and tax revenue, whereas the money you spend abroad doesn’t, and you generally don’t have high value stuff to export as a developing nation.

      This asymmetry in technology levels creates the banana republic effect where a country like China or USA can exploit you for basic resources. Since you’re absolutely dependent on imports, having no industry of your own, it’s a seller’s market.

      So the first thing on the agenda is to create local industry for as many things as possible, almost regardless of cost. From an individual point of view, it’s cheaper to buy Chinese, but from the society’s point of view, it’s cheaper for all if people bought local made stuff.

      1. This is btw. why the EU bans and strictly regulates agricultural subsidies in individual member countries.

        Businesses and corporations don’t care that they’re ruining the society by importing food – they just buy from whoever sells the cheapest, which means they’re importing stuff, which means a huge cash flow inwards to the big EU core countries from the smaller peripheries with more feeble economies, and especially from the rich north where the real value of the Euro is smaller due to the high taxes required by the welfare states.

        The EU doesn’t allow these countries to subsidize their own food production to the necessary degree to stop this outflow of cash. The outer states are not allowed to practice any sort of economic protectionism.

        As a result, money and jobs flee the periphery towards the central states, not just in food production, but in all basic goods that can be made cheaper by some low-paid immigrant in Germany.

  3. Everyone and their dog is coming out with a “robotics learning platform.” They are all pointless. The group behind selling these are the only ones learning anything and developing any valuable skills. The kids that get to use them are only playing. Of course, playing with an rc bot is something fun that almost every kid will enjoy, it isn’t teaching anything about design because everything is already done.

    The thing that actually draws people into getting started and sticking with electronics is implementing their own ideas based on things learned. It takes much longer but satisfaction only comes when hard work is involved. They should be giving kids a toolbox of parts and instead of building a robot, have them assembly a stepper driver with a 555 on a breadboard. It should be about teaching the building blocks, not about giving them the built puzzle. Nothing is gained pressing a few buttons on a printer and a computer and having all the tough pieces already worked out. Robotics development gets the most attention because the movement is appealing but really, they only represent a fraction of what can be done with electronics.

    1. Well, I’ve spent a lot of time in a classroom and I often do use robots to spur interest. But you are right: once you spur interest you have to follow through. One thing that’s attractive about a robot is that it is interesting to lots of different kinds of (proto) engineers: there’s electrical, software, mechanical, even chemical and materials (batteries and construction materials).

      As an example of follow through. I was involved many years ago with the lower grade level FIRST that used Lego Mindstorms. The kids loved playing with Legos so I’d do Mindstorm one session and then the next session I used Parallax BoeBots with some canned software and had them program in BASIC. Why? Because (BASIC bashing aside) that is closer to what we (engineers) really do to get a robot working.

      So I don’t disagree with you that just saying “Plop! Here’s a robot!” isn’t very effective, I think it is like most tools. You have to know how to use the tool. As Parallax demonstrated the real market differentiation isn’t the platform. It is the curriculum you deliver with it to help teachers (who may not be as electronics/robot savvy as some of the kids) to be successful.

      1. It’s true that engineers in the real world often just use some proprietary platform because, let’s face it, you have a job to do and you can’t keep re-inventing the wheel over and over again.

        Which is what these “learning platforms” are really about. They’re teaching kids to rely on vendor specific systems as a default, as a thing you simply do. “If in doubt, buy CRIO and LabVIEW.”

  4. Hey, I’m in Africa! I’m not really sure what this has to do with our continent. This robot seems to be a bit pricey (luckily it seems that the shipping is free). I was able to borrow a robot from our Electronic Systems Laboratory at our university and I’d suggest you do the same before buying a kit such as this. You might learn a lot from designing your own robot. Robot kits are great for learning software concepts of robotics, such as computer vision in my case, though you might learn a lot more about the mechanical side from designing your own robot.

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