Roboticists in Africa and the United States have launched an
initiative to enhance robotics education, research, and industry in Africa.
The African Robotics Network (AFRON) wants to mobilize a
community of institutions and individuals working on robotics-related
areas, strengthening communication and collaboration among them.
"There are many robotics activities emerging in Africa," says
Ayorkor Korsah, a professor of computer science at Ashesi University, in
Berekuso — a 45 minute drive north of Accra, Ghana's capital."Our
goal is to highlight, enhance, and provide support for efforts in different
parts of the continent."
Korsah co-founded AFRON with Ken Goldberg, an IEEE Fellow and professor of robotics at the University of California,
Berkeley. Goldberg, who was born in Nigeria where his parents were teachers, says one of the first projects AFRON is planning
involves an international competition to design an extremely low cost programmable robot for education. The idea (still under
development) is to create a simple robot with parts costing under $10 that students would use to explore science and
engineering topics. The robot would be connected via USB to a computer, and students would use open source software to
program the robot's behavior and share their results. Goldberg acknowledges that developing a capable robot for just $10 is a
challenge."We want to get people thinking creatively," he says."We are not sure it's possible, but it's a target to aim for." If
they're successful, robots could become a powerful educational tool in Africa.
"Robotics is a great educational tool because it combines the tangible world with which kids are familiar, and the
formalization of programming and mathematics," says Paulo Blikstein, a professor at Stanford's School of Education who studies
the use of technology in classrooms, but is not involved with AFRON."So, you get the best of both worlds, if it is done right."
Korsah (center, with her students in the photo) grew up in Nigeria and Ghana, and went on to study in the US, earning a
Bachelor's and Master's degree from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. in robotics and artificial intelligence from Carnegie Mellon
University.Ashesi is a university founded by Patrick Awuah, a former Microsoft executive who returned to his native Ghana to
establish a liberal arts college that he hoped would educate a new generation of African leaders.
Korsah says AFRON was inspired by other robotics initiatives such
as the European Robotics Network (EURON), but while most networks
have concentrated on research activities, AFRON focuses more broadly
on education, research, and industry, including efforts aimed at exposing
school children to robotics. Research labs, non-profit organizations,
companies, and individuals may join AFRON for free; there are no dues.
AFRON already has members from South Africa and Nigeria, and
affiliated membership is open to anyone worldwide.
Goldberg, a member of IEEE Spectrum's editorial advisory board,
says the plan is to organize projects, meetings, and events in Africa and
at robotics and automation conferences abroad. He adds that — for the
purposes of AFRON — "robotics" is broadly defined to include related
areas such as automation, computer vision, signal processing, machine
learning, mobile games, and other topics.
"The idea is to build bridges, connect people with common
interests, and identify resources that can be shared," he continued."We've already made progress within Ghana and are excited
to reach across Africa and to include members in other countries."
Images courtesy of Ayorkor Korsah/Ashesi University.
GUNNING FOR IT
Local police recently used a robot with sonar to search an Oakland, CA
estuary and found the .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun used in the Oikos
University shooting. Oakland borrowed it from the San Francisco police
department who also supplied a boat with underwater tracking.A tip was
given by an expelled former student who admitted to the crime and had
apparently targeted Wonja Kim — a former nursing program assistant
30 SERVO 06.2012