The internet, for all its vices, is still the largest library on the planet. No matter the question, you can be sure that the answer to it is somewhere on the internet. It is beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it is the most powerful learning tool we have. When we visited Vidura College in Hokandara, we saw the true potential of the internet as a learning tool. It was here that we found Project Dextra, which was a robot built by a few students in Grade 9.
However, in Sri Lanka, many other schools dismiss the internet as a distraction. When you’re in school, the only thing you should focus on is your exams. Nothing more. You shouldn’t waste your time on trivial pursuits that won’t help you get straight A’s or gold medals. This is a sacred rule of the Sri Lankan education system.
But what if we threw that rule out for a moment? What if all of our schools encouraged students to use the internet as a learning tool? You might hear more stories of students learning to build great things like those of Project Dextra.
What is Dextra?
Project Dextra is a small autonomous car that can avoid obstacles. It does this using three ultrasonic sensors. One sensor is on the top, which can rotate a full 180 degrees to analyse the surrounding areas. The other two are stationary and located on the sides. These sensors emit ultrasonic waves to identify any obstacles around the car. When these waves hit an object, they bounce back and return to the sensors like a boomerang.
The robot then uses an Arduino to calculate the time it took for the waves to return. It then moves in the direction which took the longest to return the waves. The longer the waves take to return then the further away the object is from the car. And that’s assuming the waves even return, which means there’re no objects in the path of the car. That’s how Dextra works in a nutshell.
But that’s one side to Project Dextra. The other side of the project is a glove. With this glove, you can control the car using your gestures. The glove has an accelerometer attached that captures your gestures. Once the gestures are captured, a bunch of LED’s light up and the signals are transmitted to the car. The car receives these signals by Bluetooth and then moves forwards, backward or any other direction. Essentially, it’s a glove you expect to be used by Batman.
Meet Team Infinitium. The minds behind Project Dextra.
Say hello to Pulasthi Udugamasooriya, Mandil Amarasuriya, Kawan Rupasinghe, and Himath Ipalawattage. They are students still in Grade 9 at Vidura College and better known as Team Infinitium. They are the minds behind Project Dextra. All it took was the internet, a few Arduino boards, a passion for learning and they built Dextra, the robotic car. It all started with them choosing to form a team and take part in the school’s science exhibition.
Many of their peers did projects about generating hydroelectricity and various other chemistry experiments. But Team Infinitium wanted to do something different. They wanted to build a robot. But they had no idea where to start. It didn’t help that their parents said that they were absolutely insane to attempt something like this. Nonetheless, Team Infinitium wasn’t going to be dissuaded.
Their school holidays were coming, and they decided that they would make their dream a reality. Of course, they had no idea where to start. So, they visited the biggest library on the planet: the internet. It was challenging, but they soon learned exactly what they would need to do in order to build the robot they wanted.
And so, the team was formed. Pulasthi became the team leader and he’d be the one that programmed the robot. Kawan and Himath would be the ones assembling the various parts together. Meanwhile, Mandil would ensure that none of them went over their tiny budget. Having learned what they would need, they went out to get the necessary hardware. While their parents still thought their kids were crazy, that didn’t stop each of them from giving a helping hand in buying the necessary parts.
Having obtained the necessary parts, the team would begin meeting at Himath’s house regularly. They would start working early in the morning and would continue till the sun had set. On one of these days, they decided to watch the movie Project Almanac together. It was after watching this movie that Team Infinitium was inspired to build the glove.
Once again, they learned everything they needed to know from the internet. Afterward, they asked their parents and with their support got the parts they needed. However, they faced a challenge with the accelerometer. It simply wasn’t accurate enough. They looked at other methods, but the parts were unavailable. So they chose to make the most of what they had and did a lot of coding.
Finally, after two weeks their hard work had paid off. Team Infinitium had built their robot. The first version of Dextra was here. It was a small robot on a three-wheel chassis named ANFER for their school science exhibition. It avoided obstacles using the same concept we see implemented on Dextra today.
However, there was one small problem. The robot ended up moving in circles whenever it tried to avoid an obstacle. So, the team decided to switch from a three-wheel chassis to a car chassis, which solved the problem. The final touch was two sensors on the sides at the back of the car. This was to ensure that the car could avoid obstacles on the sides.
Finally, after two weeks of hard work and at a cost of Rs. 8000, Project Dextra was complete. The entire team was so excited at this moment that the entire house was supposedly filled with their screams.
So, what’s next for Team Infinitium?
In theory, Dextra can be implemented in any car. Team Infinitium wants to implement it on an actual car. This includes not only the sensors but also their glove. Currently, the glove only represents a way of driving Dextra manually. If the connection between the glove and Dextra then its assumed that the driver is falling asleep, intoxicated or simply unwell. In such events, the vision is for Dextra to take control of the car and lead the driver to safety.
A testament to the power of the internet and passion
Team Infinitium’s story is one of many others. There are probably many other like them. Students with the passion for building great things. However, our traditional education system does a poor job of supporting such students. Team Infinitium went against their critics and decided to prove them wrong. And eventually, they won the support of both their parents as well as teachers.
In fact, when we spoke to the teacher-in-charge of computing at Vidura College, we were surprised. After seeing Project Dextra, she encouraged Team Infinitium to mentor and support their fellow students in building even greater things. However, this isn’t always the case. It’s all too common for teachers and parents to focus more on passing exams. And so, they shoot down such ideas and destroy any passion kids have in the process.
Team Infinitium on the other hand, shows us what happens when passion triumphs over fear. They also show us how powerful the internet truly is. When they started building Project Dextra, they were clueless. But over time, they learned everything from coding to assembling robots. They learned it all by themselves, with their only resource being the internet.
This begs the question, “What would happen if we gave internet access to even more schools and used it to empower passionate young students?” There’s no definite answer to that question. But maybe, it would be a more common sight to see things like Project Dextra. More importantly, it would be more common to see school children building these things, rather than large companies.
However, reality is harsh. Many schools still have inadequate if not non-existent IT facilities. Even the ones that do, use it for little more than ensuring students pass exams. If students are passionate about building things outside the curriculum, then teachers and even parents see it as their civic duty to kill this passion. Until this changes, we’ll still be asking questions.
Thankfully for Team Infinitium, there’s a happy ending. Their parents and teachers while initially sceptical. But once they saw the final product, they chose to give their fullest support. And with their support, Team Infinitium has gone on to win many awards. The most recent one being the Young Scientists Competition 2016. Not to mention they also presented Project Dextra at Infotel 2016. Team Infinitium and Project Dextra are going far, hopefully they’ll go even further.