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Biz Journal: Drexel professor creates LocoRobo, a nonprofit to teach robotics

November 17, 2014 Category: MethodUncategorized

This story originally appeared in the Philadelphia Business Journal here.

Pramod Abichandani wants every school district in the United States to have a solid robotics program. LocoRobo is his key to making that dream a reality.

Officially founded in August, LocoRobo is a nonprofit educational robotics company, formed by Drexel University professor Abichandani and a group of his students.

By design, LocoRobo is hands-on and caters to novice learners as well as the more advanced. Ringing in at a cost of about $250, LocoRobo offers a modern, cutting-edge robotics kit and a technology-rigorous learning experience through educational material.

For instance, users starting out can use LocoRobo’s iOS or Android mobile application to operate the robot. More advanced users have the opportunity to program the robots using different languages, such as Python, MATLAB, C and JavaScript. Throughout the process, users will be guided through LocoRobo’s lesson plans, videos and in-person and online workshops.

To start, LocoRobo will offer two versions of its product: LocoBasiX and LocoXtreme.

On Monday, LocoRobo plans to kick off its first Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, to hopefully raise $113,000 — all for manufacturing costs. No matter what comes of the Indiegogo campaign, Abichandani said he’s determined to make LocoRobo work “whether it takes me three months or three years.”

The formation of LocoRobo grew out of Abichandani’s experiences volunteering at inner-city schools in Philadelphia. He realized that schools were having trouble funding robotics programs. More specifically, he noticed the hardship in even getting the first robotics program off the ground.

His idea was to build a low-cost robot. He was aiming for a price-point of $25.

“It was naïve,” he said. “We failed miserably.”

Abichandani said he and his team couldn’t get anywhere close to building a robot for that little, and having it still be a major educational force.

“We were not satisfied by the design,” he said. “We were trying to cut corners to reach the $25 goal.”

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So, they forgot about the price tag and just kept designing. The goal was to build a “really solid, high-quality kit,” Abichandani said.

The $250 price for LocoRobo is still less than the popular, reputable LEGO Robot kit, Abichandani said, which runs for about $400. But, LocoRobo aims to take it up a notch with its software opportunities.

The goal is to make robotics a fluid topic across different grades, if schools purchase a few of the kits. For example, students in kindergarten through third grade could begin getting acclimated to the robot using the LocoRobo app, then perhaps students in fourth through seventh grade could begin learning Python and students in high school could take on JavaScript or C. Students at the university level would use MATLAB.

“Once you know how to program the basics, it’s very easy to apply your common sense to start creating sophisticated robot behaviors,” Abichandani said.

Abichandani insists that the kits are a long-term investment, and wouldn’t have to be replaced more often than every few years.

In addition to the software, hardware and API (application programming interface) ability, LocoRobo has a cloud platform, allowing use from anywhere in the world.

Abichandani, a native of India, came to the United States about 10 years ago to study at Drexel. Upon receiving his doctorate degree, he was offered a faculty position at the school. His mission? To modernize engineering education.

Abichandani’s research is in studying multi-robot systems. Specifically, Abichandani studies algorithms to put driverless cars on the street safely, while operating beside regular vehicles.

Staying on topic of his new venture, Abichandani said, “People have driverless cars on the road. We need robots in the classroom.”

Image via Philadelphia Business Journal

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