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Schools from Alex, Diepsloot compete on robotics


On Sunday 16 October, teams from townships and private high schools will be vying for top honours with robots they built and programmed in the first AfrikaBot competition, a robotics challenge hosted by the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment (FEBE). There is also a category for engineering undergraduate teams.
AfrikaBot has been billed as ‘the world’s most affordable robotics competition’. The University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) TechnoLab, which falls under the School of Electrical Engineering, has reduced the cost of getting involved in robotics for disadvantaged teenagers without any compromise in quality. The teenagers build the robot themselves rather than simply importing a complete robot.
The first AfrikaBot competition takes place at Zwartkops International Raceway near Centurion.
In the AfrikaBot 2016 challenge robots have to make their way through a maze autonomously, that is without wireless control, as is accepted practice in many high profile international robotics competitions.
“AfrikaBot is a fantastic opportunity for teenagers from underserved communities to get involved in pre-engineering activities that were not available to them before,” says Michael Ettershank.
Ettershank is in charge of the RobotScience project at UJ Technolab, which organises the robotics classes that form part of the University of Johannesburg’s community outreach programme in Alexandra Township and Diepsloot.
“Working with robotics equipment can motivate teenagers to do better at maths and science, and may be the catalyst that helps them find the confidence to enroll for engineering courses at University of Johannesburg. However, in the past robotics kits have been so costly that entering competitions has been limited to just the wealthy elite. To make robotics affordable we are making some of the parts ourselves right here at UJ TechnoLab. We’ve also partnered with the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE) who have provided funds to purchase some of the parts we can’t make,” says Ettershank.
“Another enabling factor has been the availability of free software anyone can download from the internet, where depending on the skills level of the teenagers they can program the controller with easy graphics at first, and then start using a text code software later on when they have acquired those skills in the training programme.
“School learners have also seen the benefits of integrating recycled stuff into their robots – peanut butter bottle lids and rubber bands have proven to be the most effective wheels on the robots,” says Ettershank.
Various versions of the AfrikaBot are on display at UJ TechnoLab, a training facility that regularly receives visits from large groups of high school learners who want to find out more about opportunities in the engineering profession, and what studying engineering entails.
TechnoLab is located at the Kingsway Road campus of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and forms part of the UJ Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment.
“In 2013 two teenagers who trained with the RobotScience project were placed second at the World Robotics Olympiad (WRO), held that year in Jakarta, Indonesia. They beat the German team that had a huge sponsorship from BMW AG. However, first place went to a team from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the government was investing millions of dollars each year into their school system because they are trying to prepare for when the oil runs out.
“It is our hope that the teenagers who are learning to program a small desktop-scale robot through a maze today will be building industrial control and solar energy management systems in just a few years,” says Ettershank.