The Open Academic Robot Kit harnesses the flexibility of 3D printing technology, the rapidly decreasing cost of powerful, off-the-shelf robotic, computing and electronic components, the power of modern component-based robot software architectures and the imagination of the open source community. More than just a kit, it is an academic robotics ecosystem, consisting of specifications for hardware, software, test apparatuses and an international community forum, designed to lower the barrier for entry into robotics and encourage collaboration and re-use of developments across regions, disciplines and generations of students ranging from secondary/high school right through to graduate research. Curriculums will be developed over time covering the whole spectrum of robotics development, from mechanical design through to electronics, algorithms and artificial intelligence, user interfaces and art.
Current robot kits for academia that facilitate the construction of many different types of robots, such as LEGO, FischerTechnik or Bioloid, are limited in durability and flexibility. Most if not all components must also be sourced from the one vendor. Instead, imagine an international community of students and researchers, all designing and building robots using a compatible set of electronic and basic mechanical components plus 3D printed parts, publishing their designs so that anyone can recreate and build on them. The Open Academic Robot Kit facilitates just such a community.
A class, research group or individual, starting with a 3D printer and a stock of the standard compatible electronic and basic mechanical components can recreate any of the designs in the library, adapt them for their own purposes and then contribute the design back to the community for further re-use. Becausethe plasticwork for each robot is specifically printed for that particular design, unlike robots built with general purpose kits, parts need not be limited to specific positions, lengths or shapes, yielding a more efficient, stronger, lighter robot. The use of a set of standard compatible components allows institutes to stock parts knowing that they will be useful in many situations and allows for the reuse of parts from old robots. Furthermore, many of the standard compatible components will be accompanied by lists of specific makes and models and the tradeoffs to be expected when choosing between alternate parts, providing flexibility in terms of budget, local availability, performance requirements and changes in vendor. Regardless of their choice, the resulting robot designs can be shared and built on in collaboration with other students who may have chosen different components. The software for the Open Academic Robot Kit will be likewise modular, open and flexible. It will consist of a set of elemental modules for controlling motors, reading sensors and displaying user interfaces, built on top of the Robot Operating System (ROS) framework. The Open Academic Robot Kit library will include tested reference robot designs, complete with basic software, full instructions and performance evaluations within the DHS-NIST-ASTM International Standard Test Methods for Response Robots. These are a straightforward entry point, especially for new students and researchers, providing them with a working solution with known performance and from which they can learn and improve. Improvements can be contributed back to the library of designs. These reference designs will cover the full spectrum of robot types that may be produced with such technology, from basic floor robots to advanced mobility, mapping, manipulation and sensing robots. In the future it is anticipated that the Open Academic Robot Kit will also extend to aerial and aquatic robots.
The use of the Open Academic Robot Kit facilitates a variety of novel classroom and community use cases. Two examples include:
A class can download and build a simple robot, such as a floor robot, complete with software. Once familiar with the robot, groups of students may then modify the design, print their own parts and build their own robots to tackle a scenario, such as driving over an obstacle course, by adjusting the wheelbase, wheel size, centre of gravity and so-on. A small competition can then be run within the class with the winning 3 designs uploaded for the rest of the community to build from. These designs can also then be used as starting points for the next cohort of students.
A team competing in the RoboCup Rescue Robot League Confined Space Challenge can download and build a reference design, complete with basic control software. Members can work on separate parts of the robot such as software, camera positioning, different wheel options and so-on. Each person can test the system as a whole as the basic robot comes as a working system. The cheap and rapid nature of 3D printing allows the team to iterate through many versions in coming to their final design which can then be shared with others to build on the following year.
The Open Academic Robot Kit is designed to be extremely low cost, especially compared to other kits of similar capabilities. For example, here are three possible configurations for basic, intermediate and advanced mobile robots. Other designs exist at all price points between these examples.
A simple tabletop mobile robot with 2 wheels and controlled from a computer, tablet or mobile phone (which may be mounted on the robot itself to provide an on-board camera and computation) is anticipated to cost $75 AUD.
A more advanced robot with a camera, simple gripper or rough terrain mobility, on-board computer for autonomous behaviours and connection to a computer or mobile phone isanticipated to cost $500 AUD.
A research level robot, suitable for novel work in the RoboCup Rescue Robot League Confined Space Challenge and equipped with 3D printed wheels and high powered continuous rotary smart servos, a camera on an extending mast, 3D camera (Asus Xtion Pro Live 3D), scanning thermal sensor (TPA81 mounted on a servo) and two on-board computers to handle mapping and other such challenges is anticipated to cost $1,000 AUD.
Many schools already have a suitable 3D printer – a $600AUD to $2,000 AUD filament extrusion printer (eg. Up, Solidoodle, MakerBot, RepRap) will suffice. Alternatively, many “Hackerspaces” will have access to suitable 3D printers and there are also many 3D printing mail order services that may be utilised to produce the requisite printed parts.
To make it easier for new institutes to adopt the Open Academic Robot Kit, group purchases of suitable parts may be made from the various vendors. As the kit is open, over time it is anticipated that vendors will sell bundled kits of compatible components, perhaps along with 3D printed parts and pre-programmed computer boards, ready for immediate use.
Other Events and Programs
The Open Academic Robot Kit is closely aligned with the RoboCup Rescue Robot League, a community of teams working to advance the state of response robot technologies. This research competition exposes students and researchers to real world challenges by way of the DHS-NIST-ASTM International Standard Test Methods for Response Robots. These test methods are developed in close collaboration with responders and are used to assist government agencies and military organisations in specifying and procuring robots worldwide.
The Real-World Connection
The Open Academic Robot Kit also paves the way for just-in-time, custom purpose, low cost robots for actual deployment. Two major issues with current response robots are that they are necessarily a compromise as they must carry out many different missions and they need extensive, unique spare parts inventories and associated logistics. An Open Response Robot Kit will consist of a logistics unit, such as a shipping container, containing an inventory of standard parts, 3D printers, feedstock and a catalogue of robot designs and software. When disaster strikes, such as an earthquake or industrial accident, the perfect robot can be produced on-the-spot, using performance data gathered within the standard test methods to make their decision. These robots will be inexpensive, easy to repair and similar in their control methodology. It is hoped that the best robots from the Open Academic Robot Kit may become the prototypes that, along with their developers, feed into a future Open Response Robot Kit.