Robotics Student Shares Vision with Local Youth

Thanks to Lu Seapy for this guest post!

High school student Jacob Field wants every student in The Columbia River Gorge to be able to build, program, and keep a robot. He is making this vision a reality with the Protobot Project taking place at St. Mary’s Academy later this month.

Protobots, designed by Field, are mini-robots with touch and light sensors that can navigate a maze, zip through an obstacle course, or repeat a pattern. “Imagine a little roomba with no vacuum. The robots are simple, but kids love to play with them, watch them, and people ask if they can buy one,” said Field.

The robots aren’t for sale. Instead students build and program them.

Field began developing the robot in March 2017. He started by researching different builds that could be easily assembled using a 3-D printer and inexpensive parts found on eBay. His goal was to build a robot for under $15 each.

Wasco County 4-H STEM educator Joel Riese calls the robots unique in that they are advanced enough to have sensors and simple enough to put together by elementary-aged students. “The fact that you can get something so functional for such a small price is great. Then that it’s developed by a student is mind blowing,” he said.

The program started as a personal project because Field wanted to have a robot to tinker with. “I kept getting hung up on the idea that I didn’t have the funds to really do anything, but I started thinking, and realized that I could design a robot that used easy to find, cheap components sourced from eBay.” He later realized that there might be a use for these in schools.

He approached Wasco County 4-H staff at the Robotics Club at TDHS with his idea for sharing these mini-robots with younger students. “I loved it from the minute he started talking about it,” said project advisor Lu Seapy who was specifically attracted to the project’s accessibility and affordability.

In building the bots, participants add motors and sensors to a 3-D printed robot frame and solder components on a circuit board designed by Field.

Not only has Field designed the robot, developed a parts list, and designed multiple Arduino programming libraries for the bot, he also designed colorful and easy to use instructional handouts. The handouts make it easy to construct and repair the robots should problems arise. He is currently working on an instructional video to accompany the learning materials.

The robots are programed using Arduino Developer software. One of Field’s goals with the project has been to keep it open source. The Arduino software is free and resources are available at GitHub.

“I am so impressed by Jacob’s ingenuity and work on this project,” said Seapy.

The project has developed through several stages so far. In testing and designing the bot, Jacob worked with a local robotics engineer and 3-D printing specialist and designed several different circuit boards. Once he had a prototype he felt comfortable with, he worked with a local middle school student, Connor Sam, to test the Protobot building process. Sam mentioned enjoying building the robot and said it was, “just the right amount of challenge. Not too easy, but not too difficult either.”

At a one-day Maker Camp this summer, a dozen local students were able to build robots using Jacob’s design and then take them home.

“People were a lot more excited about the project than I expected them to be. I only hope they’ll be this excited about programming them, since that’s where you can really push the limits of what these can do,” said Field.

Field and Seapy felt the next step is developing the robot over a series, so that individuals get more familiar with programming the bots thus expanding their capabilities.

“This is no small undertaking and the project has additional room for growth,” says Seapy. Field is currently working on a program where the robot uses artificial intelligence to learn how to navigate a room without bumping into any obstacles at all.

The Protobot Project has been developed in conjunction with Wasco County 4-H with funding support from the Oregon Department of Education STEM Beyond Schools grant and Google.

Those interested in learning more about the project can contact lu.seapy@oregonstate.edu . Tutorials and resources available to download at https://github.com/Bobcatmodder/ProtoBots.