This is the development blog for Source Bots, a not-for-profit organisation based in Southampton, UK aimed at promoting STEM to under-18s through competitive robotics. Right now we're developing a modular, easy-to-use robotics kit that we can use to greatly lower the barrier to entry for these competitions, to make them as accessible as possible.
Earlier this month the University of Southampton hosted the annual Science and Engineering Day, where the university opens its doors to the public and invites them to take part in hundreds of interactive activities, shows, talks, and demonstrations. The event is very popular and has won numerous awards in recent years for its promotion of STEM fields. So we thought this would be a brilliant opportunity to field test for our new robotics kit design by putting on a hands-on event for kids that could serve as a testing bed early on in development, and a milestone for us to head towards.
The activity was to program a robot to autonomously navigate a simple maze. We set up a drag-and-drop programming environment using Blockly, with simple commands along the lines of "move forward half a metre" and "turn left". This made the challenge accessible even to people with no prior experience of programming.
Our kit design includes a camera and some computer vision software, which allows the robot to detect fiducial markers which resemble two-dimensional barcodes. This is the robot's primary sensor input and can be used to deduce the robot's location and the locations of other labelled objects in the vicinity (such as collectable tokens, for example). In its current state the software is able to find markers and extract their position and orientation, but it isn't efficient enough yet for real-time use. This meant we couldn't proceed with our initial plan for the Science and Engineering Day activity, where the robot would use these markers to keep it aligned to the path through the maze. As a result the robot had to rely on dead reckoning only, and would frequently drift from its intended path and collide with walls; while amusing to watch, this made it quite difficult for the robot to complete the maze without being manually aided, even when given the right instructions. Improving this component of the software is one of our priorities right now, as being able to respond promptly to inputs is an essential part of an autonomous robotic system.
Despite these issues, the day itself was a resounding success and we feel everyone who participated in the activity we put on thoroughly enjoyed it. It also demonstrated that the core components of our kit work: it can load a user's program stored on a USB stick, drive motors, and detect and process computer vision markers.
Our next major event is an upcoming summer school in August, organised in association with the University of Southampton and the Smallpeice Trust. Here, ten teams of Year 11 and 12 students from across the country are invited to design and build a robot in a competitive environment. Our next steps with the kit are therefore to implement the remaining major features (servo drivers, general digital input/output, and a high-level programming API), optimise and polish the code, and mass-produce ten kits in time for the event.
The summer school event has been run very successfully in previous years; however we relied on loaned kit to accomplish this. This year we want to develop and manufacture our own kit, which we will have full control over, allowing us to add more features, improve usability and make the summer school experience even better. It will also lay the foundations for us to expand further - our goal is to set up a long term competition programme between a small number of local schools within the next year.
If anyone is interested in getting involved, please don't hesitate to give us a shout - my email address is `email@example.com`. If you happen to live in or near Southampton, you may also like to come along to one of our meetings, which occur most Monday evenings on the University of Southampton Highfield campus. Of course, we have plenty of things you could get involved in remotely as well!
We hope you found this overview of what we're working on informative. I'll be writing another post soon with more specifics about our kit and software. Stay tuned for more!