Africabizz interviews FABlab, the Namibian team developing a self-driving robot
FABlab is Namibia's first fabrication laboratory, a centre of innovation at the University of Science and Technology (NUST). The concept of these labs started at MIT by Prof. Neil Gershenfeld and there are now over 900 worldwide as part of a globally connected maker movement. The lab is equipped with modern tools and machinery which make it possible for almost anyone to make almost anything using digital fabrication. It’s directors are Kirstin Wiedow and Bjorn Wiedow.
Is FABlab working on any significant project at the moment?
FABlab is working on development of a low-cost practical tangible robotics kit for students to use. Currently the students use simulations because of the restrictive high-cost of kits and, further, to develop a prototype self-driving robot (similar to a Google/Uber self-driving car) developed and manufactured in FABlab.
Spearheading the project at FABlab is local Engineer and robot enthusiast Raouf Muhamedrahimov. The fact that this project is being developed at FABLab by Mr Muhamedrahimov, a local Namibian, with a team of local students, is a leap forward for Namibia, definitely! If you can imagine that for most people the google self-driving car or similar is really something science-fiction based, LARRY is a locally developed, prototyped and manufactured self-driving car. This in itself is really cutting-edge for Namibia. longside FABlab co-founder Bjorn Wiedow and a team of local students from NUST and enthusiasts.
Who is LARRY?
LARRY is a small robot trained to autonomously navigate roads and recognise objects using an on-board camera. The project also comes with the creation of a robotics kit which will serve as a teaching and development tool for Namibian innovators. ‘LARRY’ (Learning Autonomous Road Rover …Yeah?)
What event(s) led to the commencement of project LARRY?
At the Institutional Technology Day in October, FABlab hosted the first FLL (First Lego League) robotics workshop with the renowned I-SET UNISA, South Africa team. At this session, FABlab and Raouf Muhamedrahimov shared common passions, interests and discussed areas for collaboration and innovation in Namibia, and so, the project was born a few weeks later, a small team assembled on a pro-bono basis, and prototyping began.
Has there been support from the government, entrepreneurs or investors in the development of this project?
At the moment, funding is really minimal, and especially for cutting-edge projects like LARRY. The prototype has been developed through funds and resources from FABlab at NUST and hopefully, in the future, the project can expand to a bigger and even more advanced version of LARRY. If we truly want Namibia, Africa to be a hub for technological innovation, projects like these need to be supported both with know-how and funding right from the start. We have the minds and the willingness, now corporations and government alike need to invest in what is definitely the future.
What would the success of this project mean for Namibia and scientific development in Africa?
This would be a great showcase of local innovation and the potential for spin-off companies manufacturing smart devices and parts for self-driving autonomous vehicles could be realised. Imagine - Africa's first autonomous vehicle manufactured in Namibia by students!?
The truth is, implementation of robots is inevitable, technology is moving in this direction and in order to ensure that this is a positive growth area, we need to be at the forefront and start developing spin-offs and start-ups supporting this manufacturing sector rather than be unaware or non-relevant as the future of technology blossoms. We can nurture the very next elon Musk right here, if we have the resources.
What are the real-world implications of what you are doing with LARRY?
LARRY has so many potential applications and possibilities for further development, this means that LARRY could be used to support African problem-solving, such as in applications such as anti-poaching drone development., autonomous farming robots and much more, the scope is endless.
What has been the reaction of the local community in the face of such advancements?
The prototype is in phase 1 development, in other words, it has been in development for little over one month. If you can imagine that LARRY was just an idea at the end of October, and the project team, led by Raouf with support from Bjorn, Miguel, Paulus, Marcus and Demetrius, it has been developed including 3D printed steering parts, laser cut shell and the tyres were moulded and the cast at FABlab in this short timeline, "LARRY" can drive on his own! (Video attached) which is amazing. This is the tip of the iceberg as the project can only gain momentum and grow from here. The next stage will including more of the circuit board design and manufacture amongst other things.
How is the Namibia University of Science and technology involved?
FABlab, as a tangible innovation platform, is championing robotics in Namibia through, youth robtoics initiatives such as the First Lego League (FLL) as well as through student application of robotics fro real prototypes. The University, through its FABlab centre, is providing students learning opportunities as interns as well as project assistants for this specific project known as "LARRY". Students in the engineering faculties previously did simulation based training using micro-controller robotics kits, whereas now, through the development of "LARRY" they can access low-cost kits to do hands-on practical sessions both in the classroom and pursuing further development and possible entrepreneurial ventures at FABlab.
Are we really seeing technology and innovation flourishing at a grassroots level with a project like this one?
In general, robotics will always be a stretch for grassroots innovation, as the technology skills and know-how are a prerequisite in the developmental phase. The domino effect of this project though, could see our youth engaged in robotics from a younger age and ultimately spur new innovation locally.
What are the chances of other African countries developing robotics?
There is a growing robotics culture across the continent, which we are excited to be a part of, as in Namibia this is a really new area of expertise and development of locally made robotics kits and robots is something inspiring. Robots have an incredible çoolness’ factor and everyone wants to get involved. Get the kids to be excited and interested through these low-cost kits and the sky really is the limit.