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iRobot Launches Robot Simulator, Free Online Curriculum for Robotics Education

Your kids can learn to program robots from scratch, for free, on their computer or phone

4 min read
iRobot Coding and Root education robot for STEM education
Photo: iRobot

About a year ago, iRobot acquired Root Robotics to help them with a major push for developing STEM education. It wasn’t just Root’s educational robot itself, but also their platform, which included software and lessons for helping kids learn how to code. Today, as part of the National Robotics Week in the United States that almost everyone seems to have forgotten about, iRobot is announcing iRobot Education—a combination of an online robot simulator along with lessons and activities that your kids (or you yourself) can use completely for free.

We’re already familiar with (and fans of) the Root coding robot, which is a great intro to coding and robotics but costs US $200. Root is likely a bit more practical for educational institutions (primary and secondary schools) that can afford to buy a handful of them to support several classrooms worth of kids, making it much more cost effective. But for individual students, or for kids who are, say, stuck at home during a pandemic and need to stay busy and/or educated, buying a robot like Root is a big investment. Fortunately, they can just do what every other roboticist does when they don’t have access to hardware: Start in simulation instead.

iRobot is launching a free (albeit proprietary) coding and simulation platform that’s compatible with most operating systems, including Android, Chrome OS (Chromebooks!), Windows, iOS, and macOS. Called iRobot Coding, it has a lot in common with coding frameworks like Blockly and Scratch, in that there are several levels of complexity to help make it super easy to start even if you’ve never coded before. The simplest level has blocks that you drag and drop into a framework that structures your code for you. Level 2 adds variables and logic functions into the mix. And Level 3 replaces the blocks with text, although text that’s still fairly user-friendly. You can switch between all three levels whenever you like, even if it’s the same piece of code, effectively translating something simple (with fewer options) into something complex (with more options), which is a great way to progress.

Screenshot of iRobot Coding project exampleUsing iRobot Coding, the program you create can control a little simulated robot. It’s a simplified 2D representation of an actual Root robot, with many of the same (simulated) capabilities, including bumpers, pattern sensors, touch sensors, lights, and even a pen that can draw on the simulated whiteboard.Screenshot: IEEE Spectrum

What’s really unique about iRobot Coding is that the coding environment includes an integrated Root simulator, meaning that the code you write can control a little simulated robot. It’s a simplified 2D representation of an actual Root robot, with many of the same (simulated) capabilities, including bumpers, pattern sensors, touch sensors, lights, and even a pen that can draw on the simulated whiteboard that the simulated robot is running on.

It’s incredibly fast and intuitive to get the little simulated Root zipping around doing stuff, and if you do end up having access to a physical Root robot, anything you develop in the simulated environment will transfer right over. While the simulator doesn’t include obstacles, iRobot is planning on adding some environments (like mazes) to challenge your programming abilities. What it does include is the ability for the simulated robot to recognize, and react to, the lines that it draws, which is an opportunity to do some clever programming.

iRobot Coding and Root education robot for STEM educationiRobot Coding makes it incredibly fast and intuitive to get the little simulated Root robot zipping around doing stuff on the screen.Photo: iRobot

“One of the wonderful things about robots is that you speak to them through code, and you speaking to them through code is a form of problem-solving,” says Zee Dubrovsky, senior director and general manager of Educational Robots at iRobot. “The robot will only do what you code it to do and so if it’s not doing what you expect, it’s not because you didn’t imagine something correctly, it’s that you have to translate your problem-solving into the code. And it’s those learning opportunities that are critical.”

Perhaps just as important as iRobot’s coding and simulation tool is the support behind it, in the form of activities and lesson plans that provide guidance and structure. There are code samples as well as a pile of downloadable PDF lessons, some of which are modeled after educational standards (like Common Core). We’re told that there will soon be hundreds of hours of content available, although since the site just launched this morning, things may be a bit sparse if you go look right at the moment.

“One of the wonderful things about robots is that you speak to them through code, and you speaking to them through code is a form of problem-solving”

iRobot says that they’ve been working on this for a year, and it’s just a coincidence that they’re releasing it at a time when lots of parents are desperate to find ways of keeping their kids educated and entertained at the same time. With that in mind, they’ve made their premium lessons (the ones designed for teachers) free until June with the code “LEARN.” After June, access will be $5 per month.

Going forward, iRobot has some ambitious plans to build on this initial STEM educational framework. “iRobot coding will one day extend simulated Roombas, where instead of Root’s marker up and down, you’re coding Roomba’s vacuum on and off,” says Dubrovsky. “Eventually, we’ll have a connection to the physical robots as well—it’s certainly within our capability, and that’s something we’re excited about.”

Us too!

[ iRobot Education ]

The Conversation (0)

How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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