In which intrepid explorer Lindsay (Linz) Craig describes recent hackathon and STEM training sessions in Africa, along with projects planned for 2016.
Last January I promised my friends, the Fundi Bots, that I would return to Uganda when they put together their own CNC mill. We had spent four months working with the sixteen pound mill that I brought with me; in that time they had learned PCB design and a lot of prototyping skills. My Ugandan friends were sad to see me go and probably even more sad to see the Othermill packed up as well. To help them continue the amazing strides they had been making I sent them links to tutorials which would help them make their own CNC mill.
The Fundi Bots are intent on creating their own boards in order to continue solving problems, and they are capable of building their own tool chain to pursue these solutions. As a team, in the four months I was present in 2015, we put our prototyping skills to work on a bunch of different projects, including farm automation, an electric wheelchair, establishing the first public-facing Fundi Space, and conducting a two-week robotics camp. Can you guess what I got a picture of in my Facebook private messenger a couple weeks ago?
CNC Mill by Fundi Bots (Source: The Fundi Bots)
The farm automation project was an event by itself. We partnered with the IDEAL Farmer's Consult in Gulu. This is an organization that brings agricultural technology and training to rural farmers and students. The Fundi lab manager, Victor Kawaga, and I brainstormed some possible designs for a watering system before heading North to Gulu with a team to spend four days on-site creating prototypes.
After an eight-hour drive from Kampala, the nation's capital, the IDEAL Farmer Consult people greeted us with jackfruit at the house where we would be conducting our mini-Hackathon. Still under construction, the house lacked running water and furniture beyond beds, chairs and two tables, but it was perfect for our needs! We had electricity and some volunteers to cook us local Ugandan food while we worked.
Gulu Hackathon site (Source: Linz Craig)
We unpacked soldering irons, the CNC mill, components, laptops, hacksaws, a Dremel, and stacked empty suitcases to create some more workspaces. After a filling dinner of posho and ground-nuts and fish sauce, we met with the Farmer's Consult representative to discuss the various approaches we would pursue. We settled on three different designs -- a watering system for crops, a feed dispersal for a piggery, and a temperature system and fan system to keep cows cool.
Working on the prototypes over a period of four days (Source: Linz Craig)
Work on the designs was pursued throughout the day and well into the nights. Carl Twarog from East Carolina University was instrumental in providing advice to all the teams as well as working on the temperature regulating system.
With help from two Gulu High School students, we worked with the resources we had brought and those that were available in Gulu. In order to create a timer system for our prototypes, Fundi Bots' Henry Masirih hacked some simple digital wrist watches bought in town. Using a digital watch allowed us to bypass the process of integrating buttons, an LCD screen, and a RTC (real-time clock). We opened up the watch casing, ripped out the tiny piezo, and soldered directly to the alarm buzzer to provide a signal that activates the actuators at the programmed times.
Kasozi Samson, rocking a green one-piece jumpsuit, performed most of the mechanical and structural fabrication in bare feet. After three days of coding, soldering, sawing, and testing, the team split up to evaluate the designs on-site. Prototypes in controlled environments are cool, but things like mud and inquisitive pigs and cows in real life will provide insights that are crucial to the success of a device in a place like rural Uganda.
One surprise that Victor found hilarious was in the cow temperature monitoring system environment. The prototype worked as planned, actuating fans via a relay when the temperature reached the specified threshold and turning them back off again as the night cooled the coral. The Fundi Bots were elated, but then the farmer asked: "What about the sprinklers?" While it was a simple matter to add another relay to activate the sprinklers that cooled down the cows, the farmers had neglected to mention it. Thus, not surprisingly, the Fundis had simply not realized that this was a part of the system they were being asked to automate when they initially looked at the existing setup on the farm.
Everyone who participated in the event agreed that the designs would be the property of the Fundi Bots in the hopes that they can go to market and use the profits from these products to support their educational endeavors across Uganda.
Next up was the annual Gulu robotics camp, funded by Oysters & Pearls, where we taught the complete prototyping process, including rudimentary PCB design, in two weeks. With close to ninety students, we covered programming, electronics, and engineering to Ugandans ages nine to sixteen. Some were students who had attended the previous two camps we had conducted at the school, while others were new to the program and had never used a laptop before.
The population was split up into four different tracks and pursued different projects over the course of the two weeks. One classroom was dedicated to an all-girls group, guided by Erin Fitzgerald and Aarthi Ravichander, which created water filtering systems and solar ovens. The introductory robotics class did introductory circuit and programming work, culminating in a miniature stop-light that could direct traffic in two directions.
Meanwhile, blind students spent their time working with assistive technology to write papers and songs on computers as well as learning how to navigate the Internet. The classroom in which I spent the most time pursued independent prototypes with the end goal of creating their very own Arduino shields, milled using the Othermill. All but two of the groups finished the PCB design using the Fritzing, coding, and soldering necessary to achieve this goal! The projects ranged from automated cooking tools to musical instruments, and even included a hat with a sun and temperature activated fan to make sure the wearer remained cool in hot the Ugandan weather.
To celebrate the achievements of the students, the final day consisted of massive amounts of cake! There were also presentations, visiting local dignitaries, speeches, certificates, and an open house so parents and teachers could see what the students had put together over the two weeks. But let's be honest -- it was really all about getting as much cake and soda as possible for the students. Ironically, yours truly succumbed to a local stomach bug during the big day, so I missed out on cake, but it meant there was more for the students.
Now, almost a year later, I'm preparing to head back to check out the Fundi Bots' progress on their CNC, and also help out with another round of Gulu Robotics Camp. My suitcase looks a little different this year -- most of the space is dedicated to solar panels, donated chess boxing equipment, and a prototype my new company, Questbotics, has developed to teach really young children basic programming skills.
In our 2016 camp we'll be focusing more on video games and microcomputers in addition to our electrical and programming tracks. Sad to relate, one of the tracks was recently canceled due to a case of Bilzaria, so we'll be using our PCDuinos to teach Scratch, Arduino, etc., and now we're going to be adding an introductory Android IoT track as well.