Encouraging STEM education through robotic space exploration

Mars Lab Team

The Mars Lab is a collaborative project between the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at the University of Sydney, The Australian Centre for Astrobiology (ACA) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences (MAAS) in Sydney.

The objective of the program is to promote and lift participation rates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) by primary and high school students. This is achieved by providing them with an immersive and realistic STEM-rich experience in the form of a robotic planetary exploration mission looking for evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

The experience gets students to remotely operate research-grade robotic rovers, that are operating in a purpose-built 140 square meter scientifically accurate Mars Yard. Based on a prescribed program of geology and astrobiology that they have been following in the weeks leading up to their Mars Lab experience, students are asked to investigate the yard and look for evidence of life from the rocks in the space. The project has been running for two years, supported by Government funding, and is now self-sustainable. We have attracted over 5000 students from across Australia and internationally.


Despite the heavy emphasis on STEM from governments across the world, research has shown that the number of students participating in STEM education in higher studies are dropping in Australia and in other developed nations like the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

This is problematic as demand for STEM skills will only increase as we progress into the 21st century. According to one Australian survey, 31.5% of respondents reported having difficulty recruiting STEM graduates, while 40.4% had difficulty recruiting STEM qualified technicians and trades workers. This implies that although many of the required positions were filled, the actual candidates hired may not have possessed all the skills and attribute that employers were looking for.

The Mars Lab programme attempts to address these issues by using space exploration as the inspiration for our education program. The program brings an inquiry-based approach to learning. Students are asked to generate their own research questions and formulate a plan on how they will conduct their experiments to answer these questions. From their classrooms, students are given an authentic, immersive and interactive experience where they can participate in an exploration mission using robots to answer their research questions.

At the conclusion of the program, students are asked to present their findings to the class and reflect on their experience.

B Motion team

The objective of our project is to provide a reliable and functional system that would take humanity one step further in aiding less fortunate handicapped patients by offering them a better and more independent life.

The project is aimed at handicapped patients, for example quadriplegia patients who have partially or totally lost the ability to use their limbs due to illness or spinal cord injury. Those who are unable to use a conventional joystick, yet their sensory and cognitive brain functions are still intact.

The implementation of the system involves both hardware and software elements. The Neuro-headset, Arduino microcontroller, kinect and electric wheelchair are the main hardware elements.

C-code is used to program the microcontroller. Java based language is used in the processing console to provide user interface and to also link all the system components together. The project will support handicap patients by providing them with a means of independent transportation, allowing them to utilise their maximum potential.


It’s practical application involves a non-invasive brain-computer interface (BCI) technique that will provide direct interface between brain and computer in order to control the motion of the wheelchair as desired by the user.

The brain-computer interface is based on electroencephalography (EEG) and can be employed to detect user’s thoughts, feelings, and expressions and accordingly issue appropriate commands to the electric wheelchair motor controller.



2015 was the year selfies went high-tech. The seemingly ubiquitous desire people have to take pictures of themselves and film their daily adventures is fuelling an industry of increasingly sophisticated gadget makers.

For those serious about filming what they’re up to, but without the wherewithal to hire their own camera crew, tags, sensors and some clever engineering have enabled the creation of Soloshot.

It’s a beguilingly simple idea. Put a motor on a tripod to adjust the direction and elevation of a camera and connect that ability to a sensor tag. Whoever or whatever has the tag on it is what the camera tracks, up to a distance of about 600 metres. Package it with some nifty software and suddenly you have a camera crew in a small and very mobile package.

As with all such technology the pace of improvement keeps increasing as the devices get smaller and less power intensive. For example, Soloshot’s tag has shrunk 40 per cent in size from one iteration to the next.

Originally conceived as a way for surfers to film themselves the idea has expanded to other adventure-style sports, but could be readily adapted to more serious applications. Combine the technology with a suitable drone and filming from the air could automatically track emergency workers navigating a difficult environment, or simply trck the work of other drones.


Hamdan bin Mohammed: UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good a major step in positioning UAE globally in advanced technologies
UAE AI & Robotics Award
  • Award supports UAE policy to support science, technology and innovation to build knowledge based economy
  • Participating projects offer innovative services in education, health and social services using robotics and artificial intelligence
  • Health category leads with 34.84% of entries, followed by education with 15.48% 
  • UAE, US, Spain, UK, Italy, India, Australia, Russia and Canada constitute top countries with maximum number of entries
  • Huge participation from international universities such as MIT, Stanford, The University of Sydney, Carnegie Mellon University, Berkeley University, UAE University and Khalifa University


His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, Chairman of the Executive Council, and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Dubai Museum of the Future Foundation, said the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is focused on strengthening the position of the UAE in promising sectors through innovative initiatives, and described His Highness Sheikh Mohammed as a school that converts small ideas into big global initiatives.

“The UAE leadership aims to promote the economic model of the UAE, relying on minds and innovations rather than resources, through the launch of Higher Policy for Science, Technology and Innovation. We have to work hard in the coming period to strengthen the position of the UAE in promising technology sectors by attracting the best researchers and innovators as well as building strategic partnerships to develop our national talents,” His Highness Sheikh Hamdan said, adding that the UAE aims to enter the competitive race in these areas soon to make use of global leadership opportunities.

His Highness Sheikh Hamdan said that the first edition of the UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good has become a global platform of innovative ideas in this advanced field, which has been highlighted in global studies as an area of strategic importance for economies in view of its role in developing services in various sectors.

His Highness Sheikh Hamdan stated this as the Organizing Committee of the UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good announced the closing of the nomination period for the first edition of the event, which received 664 entries from 121 countries around the world.

His Excellency Mohammed Abdullah Al Gergawi, Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees and Managing Director of the Dubai Museum of the Future Foundation and Chairperson of the Organising Committee of the UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good, said that the UAE is keen to adopt the latest advanced technologies to serve various segments of the society in all aspects that affect human lives.

HE Al Gergawi said: “The UAE government launched the UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good during the Government Summit last February to achieve the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to enhance the status of the UAE as a global leader in the field of science and technology by adopting the culture of innovation and taking advantage of available technologies to improve human life in several key areas.”

HE Al Gergawi added that this award is a new initiative from the UAE government aimed at making use of the economic and scientific opportunities in the robotics and artificial intelligence sector, which has emerged as a significant part of the developed economies in various sectors such as health, education and space industry.

Stressing the importance of cooperative efforts in this area, HE Al Gergawi urged government entities, private sector companies, research and academic institutions to join hands in promoting this annual award as a platform to honour the most important innovations and practical models in the next generation of services using robotics and artificial intelligence.

According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, robotics and artificial intelligence sector will create an economic value of US$ 8 trillion by 2025, through its impact on different sectors. A Deloitte global index on confidence of private ownership investors in 2015 (Deloitte Private Equity Confidence Survey 2015) also indicates that the robotics and artificial intelligence sector is one of the top 10 sectors of global investment focus in the coming period.

The largest number of entries in the UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good was received in the Health category. The following is the percentage of entries received in various categories of the award:  Civil Defence 5.16%, Construction 3.23%, Economy 0.56%, Education 15.48%, Environment 5.81%, Health 34.84%, Humanitarian Aid 3.87%, Logistics 1.29%, Social Services 8.39%, Tourism 1.94%, Transport 1.94% and Others 17.42%.

The maximum number of entries was received from the UAE, the US, Spain, the UK, Italy, India, Australia, Russia and Canada.  Huge participation was also witnessed from international universities such as MIT, Stanford, The University of Sydney, Carnegie Mellon University, Berkeley University, UAE University and Khalifa University.

The names of 10 applicants from each category who will be eligible to participate in the semi-finals of the International and National competitions will be announced soon by the Organising Committee. At this stage, the selected participants will get the opportunity to demonstrate their ideas in front of the panel of judges, which includes high-profile experts and specialists in robotics and artificial intelligence technologies.

The UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good will honour winners from universities, companies, professionals and individuals in the International Competition with US$ 1 million in prize money while winners in the National Competition will receive AED 1 million. The awards in both the competitions will be handed over at a special ceremony in February 2016 before the fourth Government Summit.

The award aims to encourage research and applications of robotics and artificial intelligence to meet existing challenges in three key sectors: health, education and social services. It will also promote public awareness on the positive applications of these technologies, and help turn innovative ideas into reality to contribute to the development of government services provided by the UAE Government.

The award offers all citizens and residents in the UAE the opportunity to participate individually or collectively in the competition. The UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good represents a unique initiative for the development of government services, highlighting the application of innovations to employ the latest technologies in robotics and artificial intelligence. The International Competition of the award is open to individuals, teams or companies from all around the world.

The competing projects must comply with safety standards and include new technologies. They must also be highly reliable and provide added value. Participants must suggest the type of services of their projects and additional technologies that will be required. For example, robotics can be used to help people with disabilities and health issues and encourage children in education. They can be useful in carrying out complicated and difficult tasks in areas such as firefighting, construction, social welfare and other areas of relevance to all members of the society.

One California-based outfit hopes its golf ball-sized robots will help children understand the digital language of programming

The Ozobot robot

Just as school language departments have had to adapt their offerings to keep up with the times – from French to Spanish and now Mandarin – the makers of tech toy Ozobot want to help children learn a language they think is vital for the 21st century. That language is a digital one.

Released in 2014 by Evollve, a California-based company, Ozobot is a programmable robot designed to get over the stigma of coding as a boring or difficult thing to learn. As the firm puts it, Ozobot “gamifies STEM and computer science learning”. 

The Ozobot robot is smaller than a golf ball

Smaller than a golf ball, the robot teaches children the basics of programming. Each $50 robot follows lines drawn in thick coloured felt-tip pens either on paper or sketched on a tablet screen. The length, layout and squiggly-ness of the lines is determined by children’s imagination. Children can build their own custom game, mapping out the lines for one or many robots.

The robot’s sensors detect and read the “code” – in this case, changes in the colour of pen used – with each colour associated to a different movement, such as move, spin or speed up. The idea is to get children comfortable with designing a series of commands (in this case, coloured lines) to control what the Ozobot does, and then see the robot put those commands into action.

The firm’s latest offering launched this year is the Ozobot Bit, which uses programming editor OzoBlockly to take the lesson one step further. By selecting different commands on screen (represented by different blocks of colour) and putting them in the order they wish in the programme, children can choose what to make the Ozobot do. The company explains Ozobot Bit as “a virtual version of brick building toys”. Evollve hopes that by making computer science fun with whizzy, mini-robots that light up and dance, they can make coding seem like child’s play. 


Mobile robots have faced a challenge. Working outside of controlled environments, such as factories or warehouses, getting around can be tricky for a robot. Most commercially available kit either runs on fixed rails or comes equipped with combinations of wheels or tracks.

While there have been some very clever applications and adaptations allowing devices to get about pretty well, rough terrain and other difficult environments have remained pretty much out of bounds. What they really needed was legs.

The robotics team at the Italian Institute of Technology are the latest group to tackle the challenges of building a walking robot with the requisite level of robustness and appear to have had more success than some predecessors.

The HyQ2Max is a four-legged mechanical beast that has an animal like posture. It’s built tough too, so should be able to work in environments where falling objects could be a risk. Delicate parts such as sensors are protected by the structure of the body.

“Much like a cat or a goat that is very agile on rough terrain, this robot can in the future help in very unstructured environments, for example after an earthquake, after a tsunami or after a house has collapsed for other reasons,” said Claudio Semini, who is leading the research, speaking to Reuters.

Crucially, if the robot is knocked over, it can get back up on its feet, an ability which could significantly boost its potential for applications outside the research lab. Next on the research team’s wish list is a pair of arms, which will add the ability to manipulate objects to the robot’s skill set.

By tapping into children’s creativity and using everyday objects lying around the house, Dubai-based startup Junkbot’s DIY robot kit aims to create inventors in every home

Junkbot’s CEO Ehtesham P.A.


When you think of recycling a plastic bottle, most people don’t imagine turning it into a robot. But one Dubai-based startup wants to make trash into treasure and help children grasp the basics of how to build a robot to boot.

Aimed at children from six-years-old and up, Junkbot is a small kit that contains basic electronic components, such as a gear wheel, brushless motors and a battery. The kit spurs children to tap into their creativity and add everyday unwanted junk to complete the item – a DIY robot. The only limit, says Junkbot’s CEO Ehtesham P.A., is their imagination.

“While building these robots, children get to learn the basics of science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” says Ehtesham. “[But] it also teaches students about recycling, showing them they have things in the home which can be used to do something creative.” Junkbots can be made of anything, from old ice cream tubs, CDs and even shoes, he explains. The resulting robots can then be controlled by any TV remote or even smartphones.

With pre-seed funding from Dubai-based business accelerator Turn8, and then more support from German startup accelerator Hardware.co, Junkbot has developed two robot kits. The starter kit ($100) is for a robot pre-programmed to perform basic tasks such as following a line you draw and avoiding obstacles. The programmable kit ($150) encourages analytical thinking, problem solving and lateral thinking. The company is currently doing the final industrial design for the kits, according to Ehtesham.

“With the programmable [kit] you can build different robots, such as a vacuum cleaner robot… a robot which feeds your pet, or a music board which plays your favourite song when you enter the room,” says Ehtesham. “Most children and parents think robotics is something very difficult, but when they see Junkbot and the product they feel confident this is something they can do, that anyone can do.”

The fledgling business is attracting attention from many quarters. So far Junkbot has almost 500 kits on pre-order, with interest mainly from the US and Europe, and venture capitalists in Russia and Kuwait are circling. Junkbot hopes to build on this momentum through a crowdfunding campaign to raise $300,000, which is set to launch in two months’ time. Junkbot plans to start delivery of the kits some six months down the line, after the crowdfunding round.

“[The] programmable kit will also have an online interface, so there will be a lot of apps that can be downloaded to the Junkbot and make it perform as a different robot. Taking it further, we want to convert the online platform into a place where designers, children – whoever – can come and submit ideas that we potentially help them manufacture,” says Ehtesham. “Our vision with Junkbot is to create inventors in every home.”