Parallax Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Educational Program
Will flying robots be a big part of future educational robotics programs?
They're everywhere right now, most recently last weekend on this 60 Minutes "Drones over America"
video. Putting the media-loved "drone" terminology aside for a bit, this program was a reminder for me that Parallax should consider doing what we did for robotics with the Boe-Bot for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) with the ELEV-8. After all, microcontroller education is what we do very well and although rolling robots provide a very strong starting point, there's a next step some educators are asking about: flying robots.
We are considering the planning of a UAS educational program.
Education requires a known, finite yet expandable system
Consider where Parallax might fit into the UAS educational market (which I really don't think exists yet) with the ELEV-8 products. First, let's recognize that the Chinese and domestic suppliers like DIY Drones have progressed their capabilities beyond the ELEV-8 so our hardware and software features alone aren't all that impressive from an end-user standpoint. However, most people using these are only assembling them and configuring them with a PC. My guess is that fewer people outside of embedded programming circles (and less in educational environment save MIT) have a real understanding of how they are built, how the subsystems operate, and could actually program them on their own like we show people with our robot kits. And it doesn't take a complex UAS to truly learn how they work - the ELEV-8 with the Hoverfly Open board (and an external add-on accelerometer and GPS board) provides more than enough
for a UAS educational program that could be used in community colleges and universities. My point is that I don't think we'd be short on features for an educational UAS platform.
Personal responsibility and safety go together in education
Programming provides more assurance that individuals take real personal responsibility over what they fly. This is particularly true in education - next to safety a first lesson must be that a user take responsibility over everything they put into the sky. UASs in education shouldn't be about cobbling pieces together and attaching more stuff to them, but actually learning how to code the individual sensors and integrate them into a whole system. To take responsibility means you need to build and program it yourself, even if it involves stepwise instructions and debugging examples along the way.
A new economy requires developers, not just users
Economists are also talking about how "drones" represent a totally new
economy. To have an economy around UASs we have to know more about how to build and program them. While I understand from my volunteer work in most educational environments [at least in lower levels] that few students will take a real interest in the actual engineering (the mechanical design, software development, fabrication) as a result of what I've shared, the reality of turning their enthusiasm into a career - and growing a new UAS economy - means that students must know how to create drones from the pieces. An educational UAS program could truly foster this kind of innovation. Do you know how many engineers we've met who said their first programming experience was with a BASIC Stamp in What's a Microcontroller?
It takes quality hardware to support an educational program
We've got that part. What we are considering is the creation of a new educational program around our UAS, the ELEV-8. The picture above is a newly designed ELEV-8 v2 (same Hoverfly Open) but with far superior assembly process with minimal soldering, smooth 1100 kV motors with collet-free prop adapters, and a far more stable design. My thoughts are that the ELEV-8 v2 could be combined with an add-on board including GPS and accelerometer to make a very high-quality educational UAS kit. And there's replacement parts - try getting those from a Chinese supplier before they make a revision and obsolete their hardware! We keep customers in the air.
Flying robotic educational program
Think about what we've done for the Boe-Bot and ActivityBot, but put it in the air. Imagine a kit and booklet (yeah, a printed spiral bound one also available on-line) which students step through in 60-minute class sessions. They could learn:
- The mechanical assembly process, proper soldering techniques, a bit about choice of materials
- The principle and theory of operation, along with some of the calculations
- Voltage, current, capacity to properly serve the loads of the system
- How to configure ESCs from a microcontroller
- Program and test the sub-systems (gyro, accelerometer, GPS, lighting control)
- Putting these systems together and flying the UAS for the first time
- Application of STEM and Common Core standards, so it has a "fit"
- Learning to fly responsibly and how to use the UAS for some real-world applications
- Open-source, top to bottom hardware and software
Sure, these pieces are explained throughout the internet. But students and teachers don't have time to scrounge for the curriculum. They need it in a box, with proper support and training. If you've ever worked with our products in a classroom, you know how exciting this could be! There's nothing a teacher loves more than to see students truly engaged in the project.
So I ask you - particularly those involved in education - what would you like to see in a UAS educational program if we were to produce one? Share your honest thoughts because we would like to hear them.