Getting Hands On with Robots

Winning a robot design competition when I was 8 gave me a glimpse into the exciting world of technology. The prize was a trip to Japan to build robots with children from 30 countries, which was filmed for the TV show, Blue Peter.

Boys from South Korea and Japan helped me get my robots to work because I didn’t know how to code. It was like writing in a foreign language I’d never heard of, yet they were already fluent. They were amazed that British schools were so far behind in teaching technology, but not surprised that only 2 countries sent girls to the event. People kept telling me that girls aren’t interested in tech.

Back home, the girls at my Brownie Guide pack loved playing with my robots as much as I did, they just hadn’t had the chance before. I wanted to continue making robots, but I was limited to robot kits designed for boys, so I got involved in other activities.

When I went to university it reignited my passion for robotics. One of my lecturers had a robot that he took to the local Maker Faire and I enjoyed taking the controls. It was fascinating to see boys confidently interact with it, while girls stood at a distance and watched. Although boys appeared to be more engaged, I noticed girls stayed for the same length of time. The girls were wary of approaching a metal beast with a water pistol for one hand and a claw for the other, so the boys were having all the fun.

I decided to create a friendly, approachable robot that would help girls, as well as boys, feel comfortable with robotics. I made a robot elephant from an old wheelchair, covered in a foam mattress and lots of duct-tape. It has a soft, homemade appearance that doesn’t intimidate. Small children give it kisses and cuddles and I take it to festivals where roughly even numbers of boys and girls want to ride it. They’re intrigued by how it’s made and we chat about how they can get involved in robotics. It’s only an introduction, but it opens up new possibilities. I’ve taken the robot to the last 3 Glastonbury Festivals, and some children have come back each year, telling me how it has sparked their interest.

Resources

Maker Faire www.makerfaire.com

Elephant robot made with Lego® Mindstorms® and 3D printed parts

Lego® Mindstorms® is an easy way to get started in robotics if you make the projects they provide instructions for. The standard kit includes parts for a scorpion, reptile, tank and warriors, which didn’t appeal to me. Their elephant robot design requires some rare bricks, which I 3D printed to make the model in the photo.

Arduino and Raspberry Pi are popular circuit boards for making robots and other electronic projects. There’s an active community for both systems with lots of tutorials and online support.

BBC Micro:bit is a well thought through introductory micro-controller that is quick to get started with and make something happen.

Instructables.com is the place to go for ideas and step by step instructions as well as to share your designs for others to make too. The little matrix of LEDs embedded on the board makes writing your first bit of code easy and satisfying.

The book Build Your own All-Terrain Robot by Brad Graham and Kathy McGowan gives technical details and instructions for making specific robots from electric wheelchairs.

https://wiki.hackerspaces.org/Hackerspaces has a list of makerspaces around the world. Many have active electronics and robotics groups where beginners are welcome.