One professor’s attempt at a $25 programmable robot: my profile of Locorobos and Pramod Abichandani

The research on low-cost, educational robotics led by Drexel University professor Pramod Abichandani was the focus of a profile I wrote for the college’s academic journal. It ran this summer.

We’ve written about him on here. My piece was a bit more focused on his research process. Find the full story online here.

As I do with my freelance writing, I have some extras that I cut from the story below.

His name is pronounced: PraMODE ah-BITCH-andi

  • The goal is simplicity: “For example, at a New Jersey school he visited last year, Abichandani watched a young girl, no older than seven, select a sequence of moves for a LocoRobo robot using the simple mobile app. Drive forward for two seconds. Turn left for one second. Drive in reverse until the robot gets within one centimeter of another object. Stop.”
  • On Drexel undergraduates helping his progress: “These students are genuine critical thinkers, and they genuinely care about the impact,” said Abichandani.
  • “Most college students know where to order pizza,” said Abichandani. “Us electrical engineers, we know where to order a manufactured robot.”
  • “We were trying to do something that hadn’t been done, so we had to try to build from the ground up,” he said. Already through several “quick and dirty” prototypes in just their first few sessions together, they sent out their designs to be fabricated by a professional firm.
  • “You get deeper and deeper into the grind of your academic career. Then you have to remind yourself of the core values that brought you into this career in the first place,” he said. “I want to produce things with my knowledge and with my students that will benefit others.”
  • Abichandani came to Drexel in 2005 for his masters degree and stayed on for a PhD in Bossone, completing his dissertation in 2011.
  • He knows well how expensive robots can be. His PhD thesis was on automated multi-vehicle systems — the kind of thinking that relates to the future of driver-less cars — and for all the testing, he ultimately had to find the budget for robots.
  • “In engineering you can come up with as many constructs but it’s not true until you prove it on real robots,” he said. “They could be a few thousand dollars a pop.”
  • Even at that high price, they were “all hardware, no software.”
  • “For anyone who has had a smartphone, you know that the magic is in the apps.”
  • There are a lot of low cost open source hardware out there, but there should be an ecosystem. we should bring this into k-12 so really young students can quickly learn their prototypes on a handheld device
  • We started with Legos, they have their own kits. then with Kinex. then we started laser cutting. then we started 3D printing. (electronics started on breadboard)
  • “We get attached to our students. not just because we work with them. in my humble opinion. it’s the closest I’ve been to being a parent without having been a parent.
  • At a Passaic New Jersey School youth group in summer 2014. within 10 minutes, 6-7year old girl, she asked him how much is this for? “I promised myself this has to come to the market.”
  • he’s friends with Philly tech startup leaders, like Snipsnap and Tessoria founders. “I have learned from them, it’s possible to build a tech startup in Philadelphia. I’m proud of the entrepreneurial community. i have found more and more students who have an entrepreneurial idea. it has a strong culture. it genuinely wants to succeed.
  • He grew up in Ahmedabde Gujarat India, came for masters degree, 2005, now lives in Fairmount/art museum area.
  • all three Data Fusion Lab co-ops, and they started as co-ops at the same time (William was earlier as research assistant); 40-hours a week as co-ops, then LocoRobs beyond that; William started after a freshman pilot program for freshman CS in january 2013; Kyle and Zack started in spring 2013 in the iOS
  • Zack Haubach, 21 all third year, pre-junior; computer engineering — focus on my design ability. put what i learned into; 30 percent visual, 30 percent mechanical and 40 percent coding; anything you can look at on the screen. graphics for the app, environments for the virtual reality.; grew up in Northern Virginia
  • Kyle Levin, 20, electrical engineering — making the software interacting with the hardware, he’s building iOS app, from Bucks County
  • William Fligor, 21, computing engineering — building android app, 90 percent programming, 10 percent planning, from Edgertown, Massachusetts,
  • Kyle — there hasn’t been a moment when i wanted to be somewhere else. One of the biggest points of loco robs is the education. yes i can make some hardware but if it helps. ..sure we’re making a cool robot, but it only matters if it helps people learn.
  • William — when you see some of the competitors in the marketplace, see how different and educational based ours is. the competitors aren’t 100 percent focused on the education.
  • “We’re going to stick with it” after the official co-op internship ends — William

In my effort to track the work I put into freelance pieces, here’s what I tracked:

  • TOTAL: 14+ hours
  • 1 hour email coordinating for meeting
  • 90 minutes initial meeting with Pramod (2/5/15)
  • 3 hours first draft (2/7/15)
  • 90 minutes of interviewing students with travel (2/13/15)
  • 1 hour of writing and synthesizing student notes (2/13/15)
  • 1 hour editing and questions (2/14/15)
  • 2 hours final editing and writing (2/20/15)
  • 2 hours back and forth with editor
  • 1 hour final confirmation with Pramod around software language (3/11/15)

Find the draft Google Doc here.

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