Build Cardboard Combat Bots This Weekend at San Diego’s North County Mini Maker Faire

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Build Cardboard Combat Bots This Weekend at San Diego’s North County Mini Maker Faire

If you love Robots, Battlebots, Programming and Design, you’ll love what San Diego Makers Guild (SDMG) have in store for you. This group of makers ensures everyone can have an affordable robot, and they are making strides.

The project created a huge splash at the recent Maker Faire Bay Area this May and now they’re back in their hometown of San Diego, exhibiting at North County Mini Maker Faire. The project doesn’t yet have a formal name or brand — all that will come in time — the SDMG has started calling it The Cardboard Combat Bots (CCB). This bot and its minimalist design attracted a lot of attention at the Bay Area Faire for its ease of use, price point, accessibility and potential for application in the classroom.

It all started, as many of our maker ideas do, in a local San Diego makerspace, FabLab. Jeff Malins his friend, Mariano Munoz, thought through an engineering challenge: what is the cheapest, smallest robot that we can build?

In a world of the Internet of Things, could they build an accessible robot that’s cheap, small, and simple, and can be controlled on a smartphone without an app? It turns out they could.

The body of the bot is made of regular old cardboard, which helps to bring the total to under $20. They found the cheapest and lightest Wi-Fi device they could find (an ESP8266 at $3) from a distributor in China. What’s most interesting about this bot is that there is no app needed to operate it. Each device has its own Wi-Fi router which can be accessed and operated through a website from your smartphone.

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I was able to chat with Jeff at the San Diego Central Public Library Makerspace and Innovation Lab, where he was working on his project, to get more detailed info on the coolness that is CCB.

As Jeff puts it, the goal is to “create a robot an eight-year old can not only build, but probably afford too, with a couple of days of lunch money.”

The simple design of the bots and software bring robotics within arm’s reach of a casual tinkerer or interested student. As a self-described, “big kid” who is really simply just interested in robots, he wants the share that same inspiration for engineering with other kids. Just before moving to San Diego in 2016, Jeff was a volunteer high school coach and mentor for a robotics teacher in Honolulu. It’s especially helpful creating the CCB with the experience of a teacher’s eye and knowing what tends to trip kids up along the way.

Jeff emphasized the importance of making the software as open source and self-service as possible. “We’re giving the software away and creating detailed notes on GitHub in the hopes that other developers take it and improve upon it.

This CCB has the potential to bring accessibility to massive numbers of people at a reasonable price point, not to mention, there is something captivating about putting something customizable together that you can drive from your smartphone.

As teachers are constantly looking for new ways to bring innovative education methods into the classroom at minimal cost, maker education helps deliver. CEO of Make:, Dale Dougherty, recently said at a San Diego U.S News and World Report STEM conference, “Making creates evidence of learning.”

This bot lends to that idea brilliantly and places making squarely into the hands of the student learner. Creating learning opportunities for kids is exactly Jeff’s focus as he continues to tighten the project design.

They are working on the design with a few other fellow San Diego Makers, Uyen Tran and Rob Burkhead, to simplify the code and create kits to sell, at cost, to the community.

When it was suggested that he could link up with some educational sites and programs to build curriculum and monetize the project, Jeff was less than enthused. “We’re not trying to make money off of it. We want to create something that is more of a social good product that kids can use and be inspired by robotics. What I really want to do is connect with more teachers and bring this to the classroom or to after-school programs and maybe even bring kids off the streets and introduce them into STEAM programs that can make a difference in their lives.”

“A big part of the project,” he says, “is not only optimizing the ease of build, but training a group of mentors who can teach kids how to use and build the technology.” Right now he is working with a group of Boy Scout leaders to arm them with the tools they need to accomplish this. He’s still looking for more schools and teachers to participate in the training program and welcome to other education partnerships.

To ease the teaching experience, he is working with other makers to simplify the code so the robot can be programmed through a web browser and to write meaningful programs in under 50 lines of code.

At Maker Faire Bay Area, the San Diego Makers Guild hosted a workshop for 15 kids ages 8-12 years old to build a robot and learn how to operate it. Everyone was able to put the bots together in under an hour, then spent the next hour driving their bots into each other. The kids also spent some additional time customizing the bot if they chose to. Best of all, the bot was cheap enough for every kid to take home. The potential and application for this is huge. Jeff muses, “If this became the Raspberry Pi of inexpensive robotics platforms, that would be pretty sweet.”

Check out the CCB workshop and the SDMG at the North County Mini Maker Faire in Vista, CA on June 17 and June 18th at the North County Mini Maker Faire in Vista, CA. Buy tickets today! Huge thanks to Cognizant for their sponsorship of this project.

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Becky LeBret

Becky is Executive Director of Next Ed Research, an education nonprofit which collaborates with makers, educators, and science aficionados to uncover innovative models in education. She works to create a precision-based learning environment through human-centered design. As a maker she relishes in succulent arrangements, edible gardens, and indulges in the fine art of vermicompost.

View more articles by Becky LeBret
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