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The Fight of a Bot Named Madiba

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For one of the biggest robotics competitions on earth, a team of Generation Z-ers from South Africa made their way to Mexico accompanied by a robot with the fists and fury to fight.

You have heard of the South African national rugby team, the Springboks.

But these are the Springbots, the team of Generation Z-ers that represented the country at the Olympics of robotics, in Mexico in August, and came home placed sixth, also winning a gold medal from Walt Disney for their creativity and inspiring story.

We meet them a month before their trip, as they prepare for the battle, armed with their weapons – an iPad and a controller – and a robot no more than a meter tall made up of aluminium, wires, motors and gears.

In anticipation of the FIRST Global Challenge (FGC) 2018, one of the biggest bot fights on earth, 18-year-old Mikhaeel Reddy demonstrates how with the press of a button, he is able to get the robot to lift and drop things.

Also 18, Barbara Moagi, another team member, connects and programs the robot via an app.

Reddy and Moagi are part of a group of four including Tshenollo Mokwana and Masana Mashapa, and say they are the only team from South Africa at FGC this year, competing with 175 other teams from across the world and with students aged 14 to 18.

The robot they have built features an image of former South African president Nelson Mandela raising his fist in triumph (as he famously did on the day of his release from prison). It’s the team’s tribute to the late leader on his centenary year.

READ MORE: The Tech Disruptor On The Move

“We have decided to call this robot Madiba,” say Reddy and Moagi to FORBES AFRICA, a name they decide on in the midst of the interview.

With jolts and jerks, and in rotating motions, Madiba, the robot, deftly moves around. Reddy works some magic on his pedals, and in an instant, Madiba grows to two meters tall.

“We don’t know if we can build a better world for our kids but we can build better kids for the future,” says Jason English, the CEO of CG Holdings and the team’s sponsor.

Madiba is only a small step in the quest for greater victories.

From left: Jason English, Roxanne Reddy, Mikhaeel Reddy, Wernich Van Staden, Barbara Moagi. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla

The Springbots are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) enthusiasts hoping to be the next generation of scientific leaders working together to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems such as food security, energy shortage and access to clean water.

With the FGC’s theme this year being energy impact, the robots assist to fuel power plants, initiate renewable energy plants, and build a resilient transmission network.

“It’s like playing Lego, just a little bit more difficult,” says the team’s mentor Wernich Van Staden.

“A lot of children don’t have the means to say ‘I went to school that enabled me to do this’.”

The skills equip the students to be able to assemble solar panels and hydroponic systems that water crops.

“The robot’s key focus is to be able to pick up energy cubes to deposit into combustion plants, solar panels, and be able turn the wind turbine within the game-playing field,” says team captain Reddy.

The Springbots are participating at FCG for the second time. Last year, they came 77th out of the 175 teams that participated in Washington in the United States (US). They lost their final match to Poland.

“The purpose is not to win, the purpose is to build alliances with people and network…and create a positive impact in the world,” says Reddy, who wants to become an engineer.

He says the networking skills have also helped him understand the world better.

Some of the other African teams that participated this year were Gabon, Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda, Gambia and Ghana.

Ghana had an all-girls team. Last year, the FGC made headlines when Afghanistan’s all-girls robotics team were denied visas to participate in the competition. It took an intervention from President Donald Trump’s administration to grant them admission to the US.

For the Springbots, one of the biggest challenges was receiving sponsorship.

The four students are from public schools, therefore acquiring funding was not easy.

“Corporates are not willing to sponsor robotics because they are not aware of what it is. It is something new so they are afraid of it,” the team’s manager Roxanne Reddy says.

At the moment, robotics is not part of the curriculum in South African schools, but the team hope their efforts will be a step in the right direction to influence policy-makers to include it as a subject to prepare the youth for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“It’s not just about robots, it’s also about the coding, and programming of these robots,” says English.

The happy outcome has been the launch since last year of a robotics club in their school and they have already received over 200 applications. The team are now back and Madiba has returned too with more insights on changing the world.

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