Source Bots is a not-for-profit summer school project aimed at promoting STEM to teenagers through an annual robotics competition aimed at Year 12 students. We spoke to co-founder Andrew Barrett-Sprot about the origins of the project, collaborating with element14 and plans for the future.
In a nutshell, what is Source Bots?
Source Bots is an opportunity for students to develop mechanical, electrical and software engineering skills in a single project. The students' aim is to build a robot to enter a competition on the final day of the event. The robots are completely autonomous, which puts a strong emphasis on the code.
What was the inspiration behind the project?
When I was at sixth form, my college had it’s own robotics team, however to compete we would need to fly out to America, and pay the $2000 entry fee! We were lucky enough to have a sponsor that gave us the money for it, but this would be prohibitively expensive otherwise. That year we were the only UK team to enter. We wanted to create a UK version that was free to enter. This was the inspiration for the ‘Student Robotics’ competition that has been running for 10 years now.
It turns out our approach works extremely well. Most STEM activities have a tendency to feel like a sampling of different fields, whilst our robot building teaches students how they link together in a single application.. The spirit inspired by creating a competition out of it engages the students much more than they would otherwise, and promotes teamwork. We let them decorate their robot with whatever they like, so they get attached to them and it gives them something to be proud of at the end.
Tell us about yourself - how did you become involved with Source Bots?
I’ve always been interested in robotics, from being part of the Lego club and building robots out of Mindstorms in year 6, to programming robots in video games from year 8 onward, it has been a running theme. When I went to sixth form, I was lucky enough to be in a college with it’s own robotics team. When I went to university, I joined in with a robotics competition named ‘Student Robotics’, but we decided we could do even better if we grouped together and tried a different approach aimed at a younger range of students - before they’ve made the decision on whether they want to do STEM or not. Currently I’m doing an internship at Google in Mountain View, California. I’m not working with robots but I fully intend to in the future!
How has Southampton University supported Source Bots?
Southampton University has graciously allowed us to use all of their lab facilities to manufacture our robotics kits, and their lab technicians have been helping us for free to get these boards done. They have also provided us with access to their electronics and computing labs for the entire week of the summer school, which were recently refurbished at a cost of £4 million and are an amazing venue for the event. We would definitely not be able to do what we’ve done without the University of Southampton, and for that we are eternally grateful.
Tell us a little more about your goals for the summer school project?
We think the students will learn a lot from the summer school, and it will be a great opportunity for them to gain skills which would be hard to pick up otherwise. We consider the summer school to be a testing ground, to see if the Source Bots team can run an event. We will smooth out the bugs in the kits, and get some valuable feedback on the format. Finding ways to improve on what we’ve got for the future is extremely important to avoid stagnation.
What are the main challenges you’ve faced so far?
The biggest challenge we’ve faced so far has been the actual manufacturing and testing of the kits. We decided to hand-manufacture these kits, but that seemed to be short-sighted. This wasn’t anything to do with the facilities the University of Southampton provided us, it was just due to us producing boards in too small a quantity to be able to make full use of the facilities.
Another challenge we’ve faced is the issue that we’re a bunch of engineers, we’ve been struggling to find volunteers who can do design work or advertising for us. This is an issue we’re really trying hard to fix, and if anyone reading this is interested, we’re always looking for help in this sector!
One problem we need to start tackling now is the problem that every group of volunteers has, people rotate out much more frequently than if it were their job, so common mistakes can repeat themselves as knowledge is lost over time. intense documentation is the solution, but it means we need to write about every little thing we do, and encourage our successors to take note.
What will success look like for this project?
Success would look like a globally reaching competition, with a very low barrier to entry, hosting robotics competitions and providing workshops to teach students all about Robotics and STEM.
Tell us about the technology you’ll be using on this project
We’ve got some very well made custom boards for our kits. Everything from the design to the software is completely open sourced, as keeping code open is one of our principals. The kits use Raspberry Pi boards as the brain, which communicate to the Power and Motor boards over USB.
The Power boards have been designed from the ground up to be safe for students. It’s extremely hard to break them since they have both software and hardware current limits, and we test the shorting of every output to make sure they’re robust. USB connections means they’re really easy to debug, as they just show up as serial over USB when plugged into a laptop.
Our Motor boards ended up being slightly more expensive than the off-the-shelf motor controllers, but they benefit massively in safety and ease of use. All cases are cut in clear perspex so the students can see the electronics inside and see how they work.
An important part of the design is for students to be able to replicate them afterwards so they can continue work on their robots and use our code for their own projects after we’re done with them, so we intend to publish a guide on how to replace each part of the kit with off-the-shelf components and access to software support.
How important has it been to work with partners and collaborators on this project?
Our work with external collaborators has been extremely important. Partners don’t just provide financial support, they can provide Engineers with the knowledge to assist us with all steps of the process. They can provide facilities which we wouldn’t be able to fund or rent, so we can actually put the work in to help! They can also provide visibility and credibility to us, so other people notice us and take us seriously. This allows us to grow our community and to develop a much larger network of volunteers.
How did you come to approach element14 for support?
We’ve been a very satisfied customer of Farnell for a number of years now, so when we came across element14’s programme for supporting university projects we knew they were a company we could place our trust in. It was also clear that this would be a brilliant opportunity to get stuck into the element14 community and help contribute to the world of engineering.
What does it mean to have a company like element14 on board?
element14 is in a great position in that they can obtain in parts for cheap and pass them on to you to help with your project with the framework they already have. The support doesn’t end there however, as they can give you technical support and facilities to make sure your project succeeds. element14 is also a very well connected company with an ever-growing community of makers and engineers, so we get the opportunity to reach a much greater audience than we would have done independently.
Aside from element14, are you working with any other external companies?
Our summer school - which we are using as a test platform - is advertised by the Smallpeice Trust, a charitable organisation which runs many summer school events a year and does an extremely good job at promoting STEM to students of all ages. They provide excellent opportunities and we’re grateful for their support in organising the event, running the admin side of things, handling the students, handling child protection issues, and advertising the school to families. Smallpeice’s main sponsor for the summer school is ARM holdings.
As I mentioned earlier, we’re also sponsored by the University of Southampton, who provide us with accommodation, technician support, and the impressive venue and facilities we use to both host and prepare for the competition.
How are you hoping to develop Source Bots beyond this summer school project?
A lot depends on what happens during the summer school, but we intend to start advertising an entirely new event to nearby schools, with a slightly longer timescale but a similar premise. One of the restrictions of the summer school is that it has a limited number of students every year, we want to grow into a much bigger thing, so we need to start hosting our own events.
Why is it important for young people to learn about coding and robotics?
There’s a huge need for more people in the STEM industry, and with en-masse automation of many jobs very soon, it’s urgent that we get more students excited about these subjects. It’s vitally important that we promote coding and robotics, as they’re the jobs which are especially in need. With robots taking over many manual labour jobs, there will be a huge need people to design, program, test, and support them. It’s the sort of world these students are going to grow into, so we should start now!
Who are some of your personal engineering heroes?
I’m a huge fan of Elon Musk. He isn’t just a man with big ideas, he’s genuinely invested in all of his projects, and you can tell he really wants them to succeed to see the advance of human technology. I think those are excellent morals to align to, and the world will be a greater place with more people like him in it.
Another team of people I idolise greatly is the team at Boston Dynamics, they’ve been producing these great robots, really advancing the bleeding edge of the field. It’s great to see how amazingly life-like they can get, and gives a great perspective for the robots our students make.
Finally, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger (the founders of Wikipedia), are people I really look up to, as Wikipedia is a place where everyone has can contribute and everyone can be treated fairly. I think this is so important. I don’t think people should be put down just because they were born into a family that doesn’t have contacts, and the ability for literally anyone to be able to contribute to Wikipedia is a position every organisation should aim to get to.
Finally, what can members of our element14 community do to help support the Source Bots program?
Right now we don’t have much visibility, nobody has heard of us! To run this event we need schools which are interested in coming. So if there are any people who have a contact in a GCSE or Sixth-Form College, we’d be so excited to hear from you, as we’d love to pitch the competition to your school!
We also need to grow our network of volunteers, so if anyone would like to spend their time either volunteering for open source code development, or coming to schools to teach them electronics, mechanical engineering, or programming, we’d love to hear from you!
...And finally we also need some assistance with the advertising side of things, we need to improve our branding. We need to start telling people we’re here, otherwise we won’t get anywhere, so if there are volunteer graphic designers listening, or people who are great at advertising on social media, please get in touch.
The Source Bots 2017 Summer School is set to run from 31 July - 4 August 2017. To contact Source Bots about supporting their project, or potentially organising a similar event in your faculty, email firstname.lastname@example.org.