Hacking Helps Bring Educational Robot Projects In For A Few Dollars


Meet  [Dr. Thomas Tilley] and his robot Suckerbot which looks very much like a clear-plastic six-axis controller. His presentation at this year’s TEDxChiangMai is made of the stuff that makes us feel warm inside.

[Thomas] has been using joystick hacks to bring smiles to faces of kids in his part of Thailand. The video below covers some that he has done over the years. These include racing cockpits made out of PVC or bamboo which patch into a cheap joystick to control the action on a traditional gaming console. He’s also spun a different take on multiplayer Guitar Hero by splitting up the fret and strum actuators between several different kids.

But the main topic of his presentation is Lollybot, which is an Americanized version of its original moniker: Suckerbot. This was his entry into a 2012 contest which tasked hackers to build a robot that would cost under $10 to replicate in the classroom. That’s quite a challenge but he actually did it with enough to spare for a snack afterwards. Suckerbot is so named because he added a couple of candy suckers to the analog joysticks of a knock-off PlayStation controller. They act as inverted pendulums; when the robot runs into something the suckers shake which can be read by the computer controlling the robot. Food container lids wrapped with rubber act as wheels which are spun by the vibration motors from the joystick. And there’s even a set of line-following sensors built from photoresistors and some LEDs. His calculated cost? Just $8.96!

The hope is that robot projects stemming from this contest will help produce the next generation of hackers in Africa. If this stuff gets you excited you can take part. This year’s challenge deadline has been extended.


10 thoughts on “Hacking Helps Bring Educational Robot Projects In For A Few Dollars

  1. I just saw the “hackers in Africa” link and being from Africa myself I thought I should take a look at what other hackers are saying about William Kamkwamba’s wind generator. To those who left positive comments I would like to extend my sincere thanks. The others, it is clear, reacted out of sheer ignorance. You see a guy like William did not sit down one day and thought, gee, I should try to make a wind generator, perhaps someone will send me to university if I get it right. No, he probably thought how can I extend my productive day so that I and my family can get more done in a day.
    You see, in rural Africa the day starts at sunrise and ends at sunset (12-14hours). The hours of darkness are virtually useless due to a lack of proper lighting Most rural Africans can spend two hours a day or more just getting water to their homes. Some spend up to four hours a day collecting fire wood for cooking. That does not leave a lot of hours to tend to the fields and/or cattle/goat herds or education. What that wind generator does is give William and his family time at night to read or study or improving themselves in some form or another. That wind generator means they can now spend the money they used to spend on candles, on something else (like food). That wind generator could result in one of Williams siblings getting enough education to eventually become a teacher or doctor or engineer etc. In Africa we call that progress.
    In third world Africa, hacking is a low tech survival activity driven by necessity. It has more to do with wheel barrows and bicycles and nothing to do with Arduino’s or Raspberry Pi’s.
    In the first world it seems hacking is mostly the past time of rich kids who feel the need to create stuff that will allow them to lead even lazier lives.
    Africa needs all the William Kamkwamba’s it can lay it’s hands on.
    (Perhaps HaD can create a separate page for low tech hacks from the third world?)

    1. “rich kids who feel the need to create stuff that will allow them to lead even lazier lives.”
      Or people using what resources are available (like anywhere else) to learn and have fun. I have never worked on a project that has “allowed me to lead an even lazier life” that is not interesting to me in the slightest. Building and creating is not easy. Do you think all these first world lazy people work at understanding hard concepts just to make their lives “even more lazy?”

      What are you working on?
      Oh just some stuff that will make my life as lazy as possible.
      Cool, same here, I just finished my escalator, in order to get into my mansion I used to have to walk up THREE whole stairs just to get inside. Can you believe that?

      What about automating things that were purely monotonous and time consuming so that you have time to do other things?

      Besides, creating is fun. Thats why I do it. Do you think William was only doing hard work when he made that wind generator? Do you think it felt like work to him, and that he hated every second of it? Maybe he found a way to improve his knowledge, improve the lives of those he cares about, and have fun while doing it!

    1. Hi Doug. I haven’t checked the parts’ links since the original contest submission but Dualshock-like USB joysticks are readily available here in Thailand for less than US$3 – no doubt because of the close proximity via land to China. Sorry but I don’t have any suggestions for sources outside of Asia.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.