Magical Building Blocks

Educational robotics kit for kids that will make grownups jealousJames M and five of his fellow students have spent the last few months developing an Educational Robotics Kit for kids aged 8 and up. This is their final year project in Engineering (Mechatronics and Robotics) and Computer Science, sponsored by the Australian hobbyist electronics supplier squarebit. The project’s aim is to create a kit that will feature “a suite of electronic sensors and actuators and a microcontroller centered around an Arduino based system, all programmable via a drag-and-drop computer interface.” The housings for these components are fabricated to work with an existing building block system that really doesn’t need to be named. Different configurations of these systemised components allow easy creation of all sorts of programmable devices, including robots and dataloggers.

When it came to fabricating the custom housing blocks, 3D printing was an obvious solution. Squarebit directed the students to Ponoko Personal Factory, which they considered to be the ideal service for hardware and prototyping. James’ team chose Durable Plastic to create parts that would integrate well with existing block systems. The plan worked, so their next step will be using dyes to colour the 3D printed blocks.

So far the parts can be configured to execute a range of functions. There’s basic line following, using down and out-facing sensors, where the custom sensor circuit boards measure the surrounding light levels. One of the blocks houses a temperature sensor and is aimed at school science experiments. This same housing is used with a different circuit board, showing that with careful planning, it is possible to use the same block for different features. The blocks are designed to fit a generic phone connector RJ12, which will let the children easily change sensor configurations without the hassle of small individual wires. James’ team is in the process of designing a microcontroller along with a housing for it, and a motor – more parts be fabricated with their Personal Factory.On demand fabrication has played a crucial role in this undertaking. James has had parts for other projects made professionally using conventional services, but found that the costs were higher, and the commercial high yield fabrication didn’t translate well to home hacking projects and prototyping.

More of James’ project under the cut:

How would you describe your creative process? As this is primarily a uni project, the process has been very strictly controlled due to nature of our assessment. That being said, we have had many open discussions within our group as to the best form that our Educational Robotics Kit should take, from both a hardware and software perspective. As the target audience for the drag and drop interface is young children, the system has to be appealing to them and intuitive in its functionality.

Have you been surprised by anything in the Ponoko process? I thought that the whole process was very easy and intuitive. I expected that it would be much more difficult and time consuming to upload and purchase, but this turned out to be one of the easiest online stores that I have ever come across!

This is the first time that I have had anything printed [with] Ponoko.  I have found that before services such as Ponoko came online, there was a highly prohibitive cost involved in creating custom hardware and devices for hobbyists. Software has always been obtainable easily for very little cost (if not free), yet hardware has always been limited to backyard sheds. Ponoko has bridged this gap significantly by providing us with an easy to use, cheap and quick way to create out own parts.Do you have any tips for other users? Make sure that your model is perfect before sending it off!  The great thing about Ponoko however is that at such a relatively low cost, even if you need a second or third revision, it is not too far out of reach to purchase and try again.

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I wanted to have some Lego blocks made at ponoko too and try to put simple sensors inside them. This project looks exactly like that and I can’t wait to see how this turns out and get some more info on this when it’s finished

Yeah, this is a really exciting project. If Lego is awesome, this is awesome+

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