Interview with Tom Lauwers of BirdBrain Technologies

Robotics in the classroom with the Hummingbird kit

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I recently attended a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) workshop at a regional education center in New York State. It was great to be surrounded by educators who were there to learn about ways to engage students in acquiring STEM skills. One of the activities was building a robot using the Hummingbird kit from BirdBrain Technologies.

The Hummingbird Robotics Kit is $145 and includes an Arduino board that interfaces for LEDs, sensors, servo motors, and more. The kit can be controlled by the SNAP! or Scratch programming languages, and is supported on Linux (as well as Windows and Mac). Learners from ages 10 to 110 are invited to become familiar with robotics and coding. Extensions are also available and can be uploaded to Scratch, allowing the robotics kit to be easily programmed and controlled. The board is powered by a computer or AC adapter micro-USB.

The software, is open source and available on GitHub. The hardware's technical requirements are obtained on their website.

With this kit, it's easy to imagine students experimenting with robotics in a classroom or adults tinkering with it at a makerspace or public library. Bird Brain Technologies offers many tutorials for ideas, tips, and tricks. I could easily see the kit implemented in an academic setting, curricular or cross-curricular, as their are practically no limits to its utility. It allows students and teachers to quickly, easily, and inexpensively incorporate STEM skills into any classroom.

Inspired from working with the Hummingbird kit that day, I asked Tom Lauwers of BirdBrain Technologies if he could tell us more about this open hardware.

Why open source?

Two big reasons.

My company's products owe a lot to funding to local Pittsburgh foundations, from the US government National Science Foundation and from the work of open source projects, like Arduino, Scratch, Snap!, LUFA, and others. Putting this work in the public domain seems like the right thing to do. And, we used the Arduino design for the Hummingbird Duo, so it was legally required, though we could certainly have engineered around this if we'd been convinced to stay closed source.

BirdBrain is all about encouraging students (and teachers) to make things with our hardware. The Hummingbird is a tool kit for tinkering and gadgeteering! So, how would it look if we then said: "You can play with our products, but don't you dare try to alter them." As an open source project, there is literally no limit to what can be done with Hummingbird—even the core electronics can be built on and modified by folks who want to make a Hummingbird-compatible variant that better meets their needs. How great would it be if a 12-year-old using Hummingbird today developed a Hummingbird variant or derivative in five years?

How did you get started with open source and open hardware?

My company's products were developed by myself and many others at the Carnegie Mellon CREATE Lab. When I received my PhD, I decided the next logical step was commercialization, and so I started BirdBrain Technologies, and we licensed the Finch robot and Hummingbird Robotics Kit from Carnegie Mellon. When it came time to revise the Hummingbird kit, I requested permission from Carnegie Mellon University to open source the new hardware and software. They graciously allowed this.

Do you think Hummingbird's success in the market is aided by open source code?

There's the quote attributed to Newton about standing on the shoulders of giants, and it perfectly encapsulates how open source benefits us.

Our company benefits from all of the work being done to create electronic and software tools that are low cost or free, easy to use, and in some cases designed precisely for the population of students we are most interested in serving. Open source projects like Scratch and Arduino naturally benefit from collaboration, and so they naturally create ways to invite people and companies into their ecosystems.

In the case of Arduino, we took the design of the Arduino Leonardo and created scaffolding to simplify connecting electronics and programming. In the case of Scratch, the extension mechanism is allowing dozens of companies and individual developers to add blocks into the regular Scratch environment for things as diverse as robots, Kinect cameras, and Wii-motes.

The benefit for us is that this means that you could have students create a Hummingbird robot that responds to a Kinect or a MaKey-MaKey, all in an environment that can be used by a second grader. I just don't see a closed source system creating this kind of ecosystem of dozens of contributors (mostly not affiliated with the core platform team) creating diverse, interesting extensions that all inter-operate with each other.

How do you license your software and hardware?

Our hardware is licensed under acCreative Commons license, CC BY-SA 3.0. The software is licensed under Copyleft licenses.

Why is open source a good field to work in?

For me personally it fits my style; although I run a business, I am naturally collaborative and seek to find opportunities to work with anyone, even "competing" companies. I receive joy from seeing people work with and benefit from the things I create, and I would be thrilled if someone took what I made and improved on it.

Open source developers tend to share this mindset, whereas in fields in which competition is more of a concern, much effort goes into creating barriers that prevents others from working towards similar solutions. This may make sense if you're working in businesses in which a large amount of capital needs to be invested up-front, but it doesn't make sense in the world my company inhabits.

What is it about open source keeps you involved?

Our company is tiny, and our products will be obsolete within five to ten years, so we're going to need to keep innovating. We will continue to build on open source hardware and software, add our own innovations, and re-release that into the wild for others to improve.

What do you see as the greatest need in open source today?

Government is supposedly by and for the people, but so much of it is opaque, impossible to work with, and heavy-handed when it does decide to do something. We need to open source both the tools of government, the software and hardware upon which it runs, as well as, the process by which policies are created.

What is your background?

I was born in Belgium, moved to Cupertino (of Apple fame) when I was 8, and moved to Pittsburgh when I was 18 for college. I liked it enough here that I stuck around. I've been into science as far back as I can remember, and I got into engineering and robotics specifically in high school while participating in the US FIRST robotics competition.

I attended Carnegie Mellon University for 10 years, first to get a Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering, and then for a PhD in Robotics.

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About the author

Don Watkins - Educator, education technology specialist,  entrepreneur, open source advocate. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, CCNA, virtualization using Virtual Box. Follow me at @Don_Watkins .