LEGO + 3D Printing: An Evolution In Creativity

Our Chief Engineer, Cort, has been leading various LEGO Mindstorm-based CCA’s, teaching the basics of mechatronics with the constrained and limited world of EV3 kits.  Sure, the LEGO Education kits are a masterful creation and a gateway drug to all things STEM.  Don’t get us wrong – We love LEGO!

But, teaching a full STEM curriculum with JUST LEGO can be difficult for a creative engineer knowledgeable in a wide world of technology and fundamental science and math.  So, as one progresses from basic line-following, two-wheeled contraptions to original works of art and mechanical design it can get frustrating to look for a part that may or may not have been thought of a universal joint by LEGO designers, as incredibly awesome as they may be.

Enter LEGO Mindstorm Part Builder.

So, of course, Cort went forth and designed a simple tool for him to easily fabricate universal joints of his own and students’ liking.  The premise is that most of LEGO’s mechanical parts fit in a 3D grid of blocks with holes drilled in various dimensions, and parts that lock these bits into place with respect to one another.  Well, one sometimes just wants to take advantage of that world and enhance existing EV3 kits with non-existent parts that would enable them to put the LEGO pieces with respect to one another in ways cumbersome or impossible to do according to LEGO Mindstorm’s design, whether it was done on purpose or due to other limitations.  LEGO cannot sell every part of every type in unlimited quantities to every LEGO user, so we understand the conundrum.  However, we have found a solution!

We hope this is not trespassing on LEGO’s intellectual property rights.  If anything, we hope it enables LEGO designers to think creatively about their next expansion sets!  For instance,  instead of their usual expansion sets, maybe LEGO can get into the business of 3D Printers, colorful filaments, and pay-per-part or subscription-based libraries of simple LEGO parts…

Or risk the fate of Kodak.

Mambo Jumbo: Creating (and Changing!) a Drone Curriculum for Infocomm & Media

Nan Hua Primary Infocomm & Media CCA hired us to teach a Drone Flight School & Coding curriculum for one semester.  The club had 7 Mambo drones and 15 iPads with Tynker app installed.  Tynker is a Scratch-based block programming educational app, with built-in Mambo drone support via Bluetooth.

Tynker’s block API for Mambo was fairly limited.  Liftoff, Land, Move Up, Move Down, Forward, Backward, Turn # of Angles Clockwise, Counter-Clockwise, etc.  Not much sensory information, no real-time feedback accessible to Tynker API or the programmer.  At first, we were worried we wouldn’t be able to teach this limited API for a whole semester, but we brainstormed a fun-filled, experiential-based, challenge-framed set of lessons that exercise fundamental computing, drone flight basics, aerial photography, animation, and other topics.

Lesson 1
Flight School: basics of drone control system, flight controls, yaw/roll/pitch, etc.

Lesson 2
Obstacle Course Challenge 1: hoops, over and under desks, etc

Lesson 3
Obstacle Course Challenge 2: teams challenge each other in a duel

Lesson 4
Custom Controller: code your own flight controller with controls for funky movements like corkscrew lift, flying in a circle always pointing at center, aerial acrobatics, etc

Lesson 5
Search & Rescue: Obstacle Challenge enhanced with the Mambo’s Grabber accessory for more complicated missions

Lesson 6
Capture the Flag: Use aerial photography to capture shots of secret hiding places of the enemy team.  Retrieve material intelligence data first to win.

Lesson 7
Dance, Dance, Revolution: choreograph a band of drones to fly in an eye-capturing pattern

Lesson 8-12
Mixed Media: Now it’s time for everyone to work together.  Choreograph a mixed media show with drones, animation, and music.

Lessons 8-12 were our original intention for the program’s finale, but now we are involving the club in the new Drone Odyssey Challenge, a Science Center-sponsored, Parrot Mambo coding competition for Primary and Secondary school students.  Just in time!

Our company is flexible in the ways we work with our clients.  We build our relationship with school teachers and administrators on trust and shared passions towards the students’ well-being, enjoyment, and maximal learning potential.  We have no problems with changing course, augmenting our curricula, and delivering new topics with different instructors chosen for optimal outcomes.  Our trainers are imbued with the confidence and the knowledge to lead a complex CCA, a short module, or a single unit workshop  where a prepared slide show, or a prescribed curriculum, may or may not be the right fit for the job at hand.  We think fast on our feet, using our intuition and skills, to get the best job done.  That’s a way of working we would like to instill in the students as well, so why not be the role models they so desperately need…

Temasek Primary Team Clinches Junior Maker Engineering Award @ IDE Series 2018

Without much time to prepare, really a month, including four 1.5 hour sessions, where my time was divided among 2 competitive teams, as well as the recreational CCA groups, one of the IDE Series entries – Garbage Boat –  managed to catch the eyes of the judges and win a nice award.  I have to say, the 2-boy team was extremely excited about the project from the beginning.  When the motors that we had in class didn’t work well, they brought a couple of toy 3V motors from home and experimented with them.  They designed the garbage scoop all on their own, and even re-engineered the boat from an air-propelled craft, to a more conventional water-propeller vehicle similar to regular boats.

As we entered the competition space, we realized the boat was in a very bad shape – all the wiring had to be redone.  I worked with K-Boy, getting in a bit of experiential learning with a soldering iron, a crimping tool, and a glue gun.  He managed to secure the micro:bits, motors and props just in time for his showcase (… and get the nurse to bandage his minor soldering iron burn…).

The all-girls Sail Train team didn’t win an award, but were very proud to participate and represent their school.

CoSpace Rescue – Not As Bad As I Thought

When I first prepared for teaching skills relevant to CoSpace Rescue I thought this would be a relatively poor platform for learning proper software engineering techniques and computational thinking.  After teaching CoSpace-based curriculum for a few months in both Primary (Zhenghua) and Secondary (Pei Hwa) CCAs I have to admit the virtual simulation platform is starting to grow on me.

Unfortunately, as I have become more enthusiastic about the CoSpace framework, I’ve also simultaneously realized that my first instincts about it are also true.  As a gamification system for coding, CoSpace Rescue works well.  For the Primary School level, the GUI really helps in removing obstacles to getting started, as opposed to an all-text-based coding environment.  Kids can quickly add rules and test various event-based decision trees, without knowing any coding language.

They quickly internalize boolean operator concepts, and competing decision priorities and choices.  It isn’t a very big jump from that to utilizing state variables to create simple state machines.  Still, it has been challenging to get students used to this environment to shed the security and comfort of the game GUI with the freedom and efficiency of pure and abstract C coding.  Without the ability to abstract from the Simulation Gaming environment to the underlying C code, the students are unable to make the leap of faith and leap of computational confidence to go hacking.  That’s where the benefits of the platform start hitting a serious wall – students inculcated in nothing else for several years turn into great CoSpace Rescue developers, but not great developers… A work in progress.

Still, I’m proud of the Junior team at Zhenghua who managed to clinch the ambiguous “Judge’s Award”!

First Time @ FIRST LEGO League Competition

On Thursday, 1 March, we brought two teams from LEGO Education’s own collaboration space – Innovation Labs at the Science Center.  The experience of coaching a group of disparate primary school children from various schools and backgrounds proved more challenging than I initially thought.  There was a lot of tension, angst, and misunderstanding as we tried to get 8 kids to gel as two teams over a short period of time, where we barely had enough sessions to get the kids ready for the competition.

Luckily, some of the parents really stepped up to support us and the kids through the process.  The parental dimension added some of its own challenges, but overall it really helped the kids see the effort as important, relevant, and valuable.  The adults kept the kids fed, helped getting them focused and attentive, and even suggested design ideas that the kids were free to do with as they pleased.

Finally, in the last week after Chinese New Year, the teams started kicking into high gear and got their acts together.  By the end of our last session, we had the kids running through a mock competition round.  Spirits were a bit low as the teams could not complete more than 3-4 missions each per round.

Still, the teams seemed to perform fairly well with their presentations, and had some success and luck in round 1, so that one team managed to make it to finals.  During finals, the team went the extra mile and managed to complete a round with 100+ points – getting closer to Secondary school averages.  The competition doesn’t have separate divisions for the Secondary and Primary levels, so kudos to the kids for trying their best against Goliaths!

Awesome FLL-themed cupcakes, baked especially in honor of son for his participation in finals, by his momma, who runs Cuppacakes:

Micro:bit Innovation Projects @ Temasek Primary – Environmental Conservation

We’ve been asked to temporarily tweak the recreational LEGO Robotics CCA  at Temasek Primary into a hybrid of two CCA programs – one recreational and one focused on a design & innovation competition based on micro:bits.  Luckily we have two trainers in this program, so each of us can maintain focus on a different program.

For micro:bits, we created two teams – SailTrain & FilterBoat.

SailTrain – An all-girls team was already working on a LEGO Sail Car from an older education set (not EV3).  Using the basic design, we are adding a micro:bit driven servo motor to control the rotation of the mast and the direction of the sail.  The concept is a Renewable Energy-Powered Commuter Transport.  The sail is wind-powered, but the miro:bit/servo will be powered by Solar Panels.  If there is no wind, solar-stored power can be diverted to normal rotary actuators to drive axles/wheels directly.

FilterBoat – P5 boys team who came up with this original idea of an autonomous boat for cleaning up the lakes and reservoirs of Singapore.   The idea is based on various manual operations currently undergoing in various water bodies – for instance, see this relatively outdated operation.

In comparison, a fleet of smaller autonomous boats based on the team’s design can be deployed to operate cleaning in a 24/7 operation along the various inland water bodies of Singapore.  A unique and relatively realistic approach to automation and efficiency for a current real-world problem.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to complete the projects, movies, and posters required for both teams, but the enthusiasm is now in place to get them over the finish line!

The teams in both the competitive and recreational sides of the CCA are really enthusiastic about their various projects.  After a lukewarm reception to the idea of switching to a micro:bit competitive project, all of a sudden more teams want to participate – after seeing the cool prototypes being created!

A Posteriori Clinches a Unique Design Special Award @ SRG 2018

We built and tested our Chihuahua (small, but loud) wall climbing robot in two weeks, or so.  It was a fun process where none of us got electrocuted, despite losing magic smoke from various MOSFETs and diodes.  We also didn’t lose any of our 10 fingers in the high-speed ducted fans, despite cutting through and splintering several propellers.

So, that’s a marked success.

Here’s a video of us testing a full run at home – the surfaces are all wrong, and the dimensions are much shorter than the real event:

With that fine working machine in the bag, and less than 24 hours to go, we decided to add more Time-of-Flight light distance sensors and a whole bunch of code, in order to be able to perform some alignment correction on the controlled fall back down.  That seemed to have introduced unexpected I2C complexities, which we spent a lot of our day-of-competition practice time trying to understand and overcome.

Here’s one of our better practice performances:

By the time we had to cage our robot, we had some vague hopes that one of several runs might luck through the full challenge… Unfortunately, our little Chihuahua had stage fright in front of an expectant audience, which turned into a full meltdown, when one of its unprotected wires shorted and a billow of smoke erupted climactically from the belly of the beast.

Oh well!  We did impress some people with our thrust-based design, and collected our Unique Design Special Award ceremoniously at the end of the event.

We plan to be back next year with another unique design in at least one challenge…  Kudos to Singapore Robotics Games organizers for all their hard work and dedication to the open and free competition.

Mechatronic Talent Show @ Temasek Primary

Last week we started a 20-week recreational Robotics CCA at Temasek Primary.  The cohort is called The Roboteers.

I partnered with Zahab G., our most recent addition to the Aposteriori family.  Zahab has a Master’s in Chemistry and has been working with children in holiday camps and as a tutor for GCSEs and other secondary school-level tests.  Zahab  is enthusiastic and energetic – just the right mix of smarts, playfulness, and curiosity that can help ignite a pre-teen’s imagination.

We decided to coordinate a Robot Talent Show/Parade for this course, as opposed to the tired Line-Following, Sumo or other types of basic robotics competitions.  The students are being tasked to complete a very open-ended task – exhibit a robotic talent of their choice.  The first week they had crazy ideas like fire-breathing dragons, and death-defying daredevil robots.  The second week we started prototyping and quickly settling on likelier choices – like pickers/sorters/collectors, art-makers, uniquely-actuated machines, and obstacle avoiders.

At the end of Week 2 prototyping, we still have some unsettled teams, but the process is becoming clearer as each team is asked to share their ideas with the rest of the class.  The next challenge is to stir away from prototyping and into actualizing without giving up on the initial idea when implementation hits difficulties – a likely event on all such projects.  In any case, the students seem very engaged in the process, with a few minor exceptions, and are enjoying themselves quite a bit, so far.

With 36 students and just 2 instructors, I find it challenging to manage the teams and keep them on target at all times, but luckily we have a disciplinary team of teachers in the room with us to keep the students in check if things get out of hand and a whole class is derailed due to nonsense.

Next week we will begin more technical discussions on drivetrains, gears and other simple machines.  Look out for updates on the Roboteers Talent Show!

Wall Climbing Robot Race – Singapore Robotic Games 2018

Last week, as I was getting excited about my work with FIRST LEGO League at the Innovation Lab (see last post), I spent some time scouting other local and regional robotics competitions.  I happened on a very useful list from a competitor.  It led me to investigate the Singapore Robotics Games (SRG) as a general platform for expressing our own innovative energy.  I immediately got motivated to register our team of crack enthusiasts to showcase our talents, abilities, and our drive.   Participating in and winning a robotics competition is both immensely rewarding and very valuable  from a marketing standpoint – a powerful story to tell kids, parents, teachers, administrators and partners when we try to tout our product.  As this event is organized by Singapore academia, it is more about fostering rapport between various organizations who have a stake in robotics research and its integration in academia and industry in Singapore, and so registration fees are waived by the organizers, who co-sponsor the event with the Science Centre and its government arm – the Science Centre Board, which is part of the Ministry of Education.

Shenghao (resident hacker) and I perused the competition documentation and decided to go for the Wall Climbing Robot Race, because we believed the challenge was simple enough to get at least partially right in a short amount of time.  The historical participation rates for this event were not overwhelming, which was another bonus for us.  We quickly ensnared the support of Cort, and immediately became embroiled in design discussions and strategies for winning.  Laven (resident martian expert) joined our group as well, and I registered our 4-person team officially, once we had a consensus that this was worthy of our time and effort, and that we would all be OK making complete fools of ourselves in the worst case.

Homemade Thrust Testing Platform

Our current design is basically a car that climbs walls and stays upright by applying some force directly towards whatever surface it is on – it takes over for or fights against gravity when the plane of motion changes with respect to it.  We are using electric ducted fans to try to achieve this. Currently we have a fairly complete design, but missing a few of the parts – namely, power switches for high-current applications, and wheels and tires.  We also need to do some design work to get around any kind of wheel slip in our car, that would disorient it off its planned course – go straight.  The variance in reflectance properties of the 3 surfaces we need to drive across seem to be complicating this to some degree.

Our budget of $500 is quickly being eaten away from paying premium prices for electronics, which we are sourcing locally, instead of through our usual, cheaper, global trade routes, simply for the expediency of time.  We have about $150 sunk in drive and thrust systems (EDFs, gear motors), another $100 or so in the power system (with some spent on reserves for the sake of rapid-ish prototyping), and say $50-100 allocated for chassis, controller, sensors and the rest of the electronics, a lot of which we already had.

We’ve done about 3 days of work, and I foresee about 3-5 more before we have a testable platform.  Depending on the sanity of our design choices and integration work, we may be close to done at that point, or scramble back to the drawing board, with very little time to spare before the competition.

No mountain too high for A Posteriori Wall Climbing Robot Team!

FIRST LEGO League Kickoff at LEGO’s Innovation Lab

As of Sunday, Yoni is collaborating with Kwee Lin Yap at LEGO’s Innovation Lab (Science Centre) on a set of workshops where we are coaching teams for this season of FIRST LEGO League (FLL)..  This season’s theme is all about HydroDynamics – the human water cycle and its current challenges and future innovations.

The teams have a lot of work cut out for them, and it’s a challenge getting full buy-in from every participant.  It’s amazing how quickly they can get into problem-solving mode, how creative they can be in solution finding and challenge approach.  However, we had a lot of problems with team work and core values, which we will have to build up for a lot of the season.

Yoni has a long history of volunteering with FIRST on various programs:

  • 2005 – event volunteer at the New York regional FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC)
  • 2008-’09 – mentoring Brooklyn FRC Team 1600 for two seasons
  • 2012 – volunteer field technician at Singapore’s FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC)

FIRST has made Robotics and Engineering as popular as athletic leagues, with all the important focus on professionalism, sportsmanship, teamwork, cooperation, and respect.  We are proud to make it available to children who are unable to be involved with it through their school or other organizations.

Let’s Flow!