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Cellulo Introduces Classrooms to Tangible Learning With Robots

Kid-proof robots are small, cheap, and help turn abstract concepts into interactive lessons

2 min read
Cellulo tangible educational robot swarm for classrooms
Photo: EPFL

Most of the educational robots that we hear about are designed to teach kids how to code. This is good and important and a thing we are in favor of, but robots are also useful in classroom settings even when they’re not teaching programming or computer science principles directly. EPFL’s Cellulo Project is exploring how small, inexpensive robots can leverage autonomy and interactivity to help kids learn with their hands.

Cellulo robots are designed from the start to be “kid-proof.” You can grab them and shove them around without worrying about breaking anything, and they’re resilient to the sort of rough handling that children are well known for. The top of each robot features six illuminated buttons, while on the bottom are three permanent-magnet assisted omnidirectional ball drives that enable holonomic motion. Overall, the intent is to make Cellulo reasonably cheap: It’s almost entirely off-the-shelf parts, and the research versions cost US $135 each. 

Cellulo tangible educational robot swarm for classroomsPhoto: EPFL

To localize, the robots use a downward-pointing camera mounted underneath: They can tell where they are by looking at “a dense, deterministic and well defined optical microdot pattern printable on regular office printers, with enough x, y space to cover over 170 million km2 with unique patterns.” This means that you could cover the entire land area of the Earth with unique microdot patterns and still have plenty to spare, which (if we could pull it off) would make deploying autonomous robots a heck of a lot easier.

Using a system like this (which is similar to what you find in Anki Drive) means that each robot can localize by itself, and can handle being “kidnapped” (picked up and placed somewhere else). Another advantage of the system is that it works even if the room is not well-lit, because the robot is sitting on top of the pattern. This method is quite accurate, offering absolute localization with ∼0.27 millimeters and ∼1.5 degrees of heading without the need for any calibration. The downside, of course, is that the robots only work on the patterned paper, but since you can print it out yourself, that’s not too much of a barrier.

Cellulo robots are intended to be used in groups, where they can provide tangible examples of how things like atoms or planets move. They all talk to a tablet via Bluetooth, which keeps their motions coordinated, even if individual robots are being shoved around. 

EPFL is experimenting with a variety of different lessons that Cellulo robots can teach, like a collaborative treasure hunt, or understanding how weather works. In the latter, the robots can be placed on a map and act like balloons, moving from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure in a way that can be both seen and felt. Then, children are asked to position robots that act as high pressure points to “steer” another robot along a specific course. You could do all of this stuff with just an app on a tablet and without using physical robots, of course, but the EPFL researchers are betting (and conducting studies to confirm) that having the robots is a much more effective teaching tool.

[ Cellulo Project ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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