By all accounts, robotics and artificial intelligence are the wave of the future, as many commercial companies are increasingly interested to employ robots in the workforce.
In the near future, you could walk into a telecommunications outlet or a bank and be greeted by a cute robot, says Dr Hanafiah Yussof, associate professor and head of centre of excellence for Humanoid Robot and Bio-Sensing at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Universiti Teknologi Mara.
Still, robotics as a field is at a very young stage in Malaysia – robotics clubs were unheard of before, but many schools and private institutions today offer lessons on building robots.
Tan Eng Tong, chief executive officer of Cytron Technologies Sdn Bhd, says “There are robotics clubs in 50% of public schools (both primary and secondary) now compared to only 20% a few years back. There are also about twice as many centres that teach robotics than there were a few years back.”
In a sense, it’s the current generation of kids that will lead robotics in the future, since they will be the ones that have learned the skills necessary to build and program robots.
For many kids the entry into robotics starts with Lego Mindstorms, a more advanced version of Lego which comes with sensors, motors and processors that can be programmed.
It allows kids to build robots of all shapes and sizes that can do a variety of simple tasks. Lego even includes an icon-based programming language that’s tailored for kids.
Yong Saan Cern, 11, was introduced to Lego Mindstorms NXT kit at the age of six which sparked his interest in robotics.
It taught him not only to build but program his creations and before long he was thinking much bigger.
He wanted to build a robot that could help humans locate minerals in hazardous environments deep undersea.
The student of Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina Yuk Chai teamed up with schoolmates Wong Jin Tim and Lim Yi Hang to work on the idea.
“We took half a year to design and complete the project. To make sure the brain of the Mindstorms was waterproof we sprayed it with WD-40 and used silicon as sealant,” says Yong.
The team’s creation won the Open Elementary category in the World Robot Olympiad in Doha, Qatar, last year.
You can watch a video of the robot here.
Yong’s team wasn’t the only one to win at the World Robot Olympiad that year. Jamishran Chandrasekhar, Ruhanesh Suthan and Liew Chan Yue from Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan USJ 4 Subang Jaya won the Open Junior High category.
The 16-year-olds created an exoskeleton for mining which augments a human’s strength to lift heavier weights.
“I found maths and science boring until I discovered Mindstorms in my school’s robotics club which had several kits,” says Jamishran.
The team combined Mindstorms with Arduino micro-controllers and sensors to create the exoskeleton.
The exoskeleton, which cost RM15,000 to build, was sponsored by Western Digital.
Muhammad Shafiq Shahrul Amar, founder and principal of Creative Minds which teaches how to program Lego Mindstorms, says, “As kids progress they learn to program and connect all the sensors such as ultrasonic, gyro and light.
“Once they are able to program the sensors and movements, the possibility of building a robot is endless.”
Law King Hui, group managing director of Sasbadi Holdings Bhd, which distributes Mindstorms, says “People thought that we were crazy to try and teach robotics to kids when we started marketing the Mindstorms kits to schools many years back.”
“Now about 30% to 40% of public schools have it and this number is growing.”
There is also a rise in the number of participants in competitions. The country’s oldest and most prominent competition, the National Robotic Competition (NRC) began in 2005 with 300 teams – as of this year over 2,000 teams have registered for it.
Although most competitions use Mindstorms there are alternatives like the Malaysian-made ReRo modular robot kit – made by the aforementioned Cytron Technologies – which comes with a 3.2in colour touchscreen.
For more advanced studies, Robotics Learning Sdn Bhd teaches robotics with Vex robotics kits.
“Our programmes cater to five-year-old kids up to working professionals. We use RobotC which is developed by Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy. The module that we use is also developed by Carnegie Mellon and has been tested in over 10,000 schools in the United States,” says Ilylia Kamaruzaman, managing director of Robotics Learning.
As Vex is aluminium-based, it allows users to create robots that are bigger, more intricate and can lift heavier things.
For instance, Ila Marbaha, seven, made the Star Wars droid R2-D2 from Vex that can be remotely controlled.
Ilylia says Robotics Learning is conducting outreach programmes to spread the robotics culture. It has completed 100 programmes since 2009 in places like Lurah Bilut, Pahang.
She sometimes calls for students who have difficulty staying focused in school or who are grappling with discipline and social problems.
“Once they get into a robotics class, they don’t want to leave. They realise that it’s different from learning maths or physics in a classroom,” she says.
“It’s fascinating to kids as they get to see the robots in action. They don’t just calculate things such as speed – in an hour or so, they can see the robot which they built performing the action.”
One of the biggest hurdles is the price – even entry-level robotics kits for kids retail for thousands of ringgit.
My Robot Education Sdn Bhd general manager Lim Yuet Yung says the solution is simple – parents can opt for Arduino-based robotics classes which teach how to build robots using cheaper, commercially available electronics components.
“If you have a kid who’s interested in robotics but you are not willing to fork out RM2,000 to RM4,000 for a kit, you can buy him or her an Arduino board for anything from RM50 to RM200,” he says.
If classes are still not an option, there is always the Internet, says Johnson Lam, the founder of the KakiDIY group.
“We want to encourage people who are interested to know more about robotics. I personally want to help and incubate makers who would like to pursue robotics and create a product or solution for the industry,” he says.
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