I’m in a laboratory at Drexel University watching a remote-controlled robot do a spastic breakdance across the floor. The fist-sized, brightly colored bot looks simple enough: It has two wheels, two antennae, and what appears to be a friendly face. But it has a mission much bigger and more ambitious than its tiny form factor: This thing wants to teach kids how to become programmers.
This freewheeling toy android comes from a young startup called LocoRobo. Its moves are set using a mobile app that allows the user to program simple actions: go forward, accelerate, spin around, stop. And while plenty of kids would be content to play with a smartphone-controlled toy robot, LocoRobo wants to let them dig much deeper into the code and sensors that make it work.
“The power of LocoRobo is that it’s a robot that grows with the child,” says Pramod Abichandani, the Drexel professor and roboticist who founded LocoRobo along with four engineering students at the university. “There’s no barrier to entry: It’s like using a simple RC car-like interface. But the barrier to exit is really high. You can keep on learning and learning until the robot breaks down.”
It works like this: After you tap a few commands into LocoRobo’s app, two things happen. One, the robot does what you told it to do, thanks to a low-power Bluetooth connection between the phone and the robot. Second, those commands are synced via the cloud and saved within a web interface. From here, you can revisit past actions and, more importantly, get a hands-on peek at the code that makes the bot move. As easily as one can click “view source” on a website to see the HTML under the hood, LocoRobo’s web interface lets you peel back the curtain and see the code behind each of the movements and behaviors you’ve asked the robot to do, effectively open-sourcing the toy’s behavior. From there, you can tinker with the code itself, unlocking new movements and functionality not previously possible.
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