We recently attended the Halifax Mini Maker Faire 2015, and took freelance journalist Gareth Halfacree along for the ride. This series of Focus On features is designed to offer a sampling of who you can expect to see at a Maker Faire event, why they're there and what it is that drives them.
With the UK government on a drive to improve the state of technology education in the country, there's a bigger than ever market for low-cost educational robotics. Wesley Bower decided that current low-cost products weren't low-cost enough, and came up with an interesting solution. "I'm showing my robots made out of lollipop sticks," he explains from behind a table filled with colourful, whirring creations. "I go into schools and teach students how to make robots out of lollipop sticks. Each one of the robots costs under £10 to make, and all the plans and everything are on my website to be able to make it. I chose to use lollipop sticks because they're completely customisable, you can change it however you want, they're pretty straightforward to make once you know how and you've done the first one, really."
They're also cheap, which is something schools need. "It's so cheap to make, they can take it home - whereas other sort of kits, like the Lego robotic kits, they are quite expensive to buy and it's not really achievable for a lot of people to be able to buy that sort of stuff," Wesley explains. "I know the school which I worked at got some [Lego] Mindstorm stuff in which cost about £2,000, and it wasn't enough to be able to teach a whole class!"
Wesley has come up with several designs, the majority of which use microcontrollers to perform autonomous actions - giving the children involved focus on both physical building and software-based programming. "This is an Arduino Nano," Wesley explains of the brains of one robot, busily moving an upright plastic tube around a stage using its two lolly-stick grippers. "It's got two [ultrasonic] range-finding sensors. It can detect distance from two different points, which means you can put an object anywhere on it and it'll know where the object is. The robotic arm will then go and pick it up and move it to another destination. So, it's autonomous and it thinks for itself, really."
That intelligence has to be put there, however, and Wesley believes it's this gifting of 'life' to the creations which gets the kids hooked. "The software side of it is the most important bit of it, really," he claims. "All the motors and everything that make it move, it's fine knowing how to connect those together but the actual clever bit of it is the programming. I can see why the government are going down that route of teaching software engineering, really, and once you've got that skill in software engineering it's very transferable into robotics, so it is a good basing point.
"I think the government are also bringing in for the DT [Design Technology] curriculum that students program products, not just software on computers, so there are those two different elements that they are teaching in schools," Wesley adds. "The teachers at the moment, especially in technology and I think in computing as well, they're not skilled yet to be able to deliver it properly," he laments, clearly hoping that his simple kits - "I've had students that have built it and programmed it to walk forward within two hours," he explains of a four-legged walking robot - could make a difference.
"Generally, you're looking at maybe two to three hours," Wesley claims of the build process once the kit is in the classroom and the children ready to create robotic life. "I go into schools and I teach the four-legged robot, and that's done in a day. It's quite rapid because it's [built] with a glue gun and the glue sets almost instantly. It is quite a quick thing to make."
Wesley's designs are available at his website, lollybotrobotics.co.uk.