Aulë

Background

Aulë is an educational robotics kit prototype originally designed for submission to the Traditional Category of the Africa Robotics Network (AFRON) “10  Dollar Robot” Design Challenge, organised in 2012. The goal of this Challenge was to design an extremely affordable robot for educational purposes. Robots submitted to the Traditional Category had to be programmable from a separate computer, and capable of running autonomously through the control of an on-board processor.

Motivation

Many robot kits are kits in the traditional sense – a robot, completely designed and specified by the manufacturer, is shipped as a set of parts to be assembled by the user. The process of assembling a kit is undoubtedly a key feature of the educational experience provided by all kits, but for many robotic kits this is often just a small, one-off part. The bulk of it is to be found in the user’s interactions with the kit, and it is in this respect that robotic kits can excel as educational tools for the richness of learning opportunities that they can offer, if well-designed.

Yet this richness remains constrained by the fact that in a traditional kit the robot’s design is fixed beforehand, in a time and space removed from its users. The design of a robot strongly determines the manner in which it can perceive and interact with its environment, and in turn, the space of possible interactions between the user and the robot. Thus, the educational outcomes that can be expected of the traditional robot kit are necessarily quite focused. Of course, this is not a bad thing per se; our point is simply that, in the context of education, it may be more desirable if the same robotic platform could be reconfigured to suit different functions at different times for different purposes and objectives. Such a kit would stay useful for longer, and would be more easily adapted to the varying needs of educators, thus obviating the need to purchase multiple kits. In other words, educational robotic kits should aim for breadth, which is quite in contrast with robotic research platforms that often need to support exploration in depth.

This issue of breadth is well-addressed by the general-purpose kits such as Mindstorms and VEX, and that is at least evident from their commercial success. Such kits provide a comprehensive set of mechanical and electronic building blocks from which a great variety of robots and contraptions may be constructed. However, they are also much fewer in number compared to the traditional ones, and that is likely due to their large inventory of parts, which makes manufacturing rather challenging, even on a large scale.

With respect to the challege of building a low-cost robotics kit with maximal educational value, the above options are not entirely satisfactory. A traditional robot kit can be made really cheap, but it lacks the breadth that an educational kit should offer, whereas the general purpose kits are on the other hand, too expensive.

Concept

The central idea of Aulë is that multiple kits can be combined to build robots of greater complexity.

On its own, a single kit of Aulë is no different from the traditional robot kit – depending on the manner in which the parts are put together, the user can build either a differential drive mobot or a 2-DOF robot ‘arm’. Yet these parts may also be assembled in a third way to make a robot module – a building-block for building robots. Thus, when a few kits are available, several robot modules can be made which can then be assembled in many different ways to build a great variety of robots.

To put it another way, Aulë is an instance of a modular, reconfigurable robotic system, suitably designed and packaged for educational purposes. In this manner, the cost of individual kits is minimised while the flexibility to create is maintained.

To that we may add two more benefits: The first of these is to encourage collaboration between kit users, who must share their parts (and hopefully their ideas too), in order to realise anything grander than what their individual kits are capable of. The second benefit is that users are forced to make early acquaintance with decentralised/distributed approaches to robotic AI, being compelled by the modular nature of their robot, and chiefly by the fact that computing power is spread out all over the place (and not very thickly too).

Our latter claim might be a rather controversial one to make (at present), but arguably, ‘distributed’ and ‘decentralised’ are qualities that will come to dominate the devices of the future, yet present attempts to master and engineer such characteristics remain, in the present state of the art, in their infancy. Would it not then be desirable to get the engineers and creators of the future into such things when their minds are still fresh? At the very least, through this they will receive early training in the task-based approaches to the creation of software for realtime embedded systems.

Present status, future work

Presently, Aulë is a dormant project. The most current state of this work is described by the webpage that was submitted to the AFRON Design Challenge. In that form, the design has several shortcomings, and future work must address these issues (a list not exhaustive, nor systematically thought out!):

  • Dimensions of robot modules do not make a very good mobot.
  • Docking mechanisms can be improved.
  • Actuator design, and the related issue of module size and weight.
  • The actuators should be parallelisable! (Or suffer the great limitation to scalability, that plagues many a modular robot.)
  • To evaluate the possible robots that can be built with these modules, and their ability to interact with different environments.
  • Choice and availability of materials.
  • Possibility of fabricating the same design using different sets of materials, depending on educational objectives, cost, tradeoffs between material properties and target usage scenarios.
  • How should different robot parts be fastened together? Present methods are difficult and tedious.

With hope, work on this project may resume at a more opportune time.

Publications

Aulë – One kit, two robots; Many kits, infinite possibilities. (2012). Webpage submission to the AFRON Design Challenge 2012.

Background Story

It was not long after I had read The Silmarillion that I came across a notice about the AFRON Design Challenge which led to this project, so after working at it for awhile I naturally felt inclined to name the robot Aulë, after one of the characters in the book.

In the Silmarillion, Aulë is one of the spirits who have entered the world of its primary creator, Eru Iluvatar, and they participate in the shaping and development of that world. Of these spirits (who are known as the ‘Valar’), Aulë is most fond of the crafting and fashioning of things, and it is in these qualities that I feel, an association between the character and the objectives of the present poject may be drawn.

It is interesting to note that the primary antagonists in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Sauron and Saruman, were both once followers of Aulë. Later on they turned to evil ways, and henceforth their skill and craftsmanship were applied to the creation of destructive weapons and beings for the purpose of acquiring greater power for themselves.

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