Alan Yong (second from right) at a ThinkCrate session, which encourages participants to tinker with mini-electronic projects. (Image credit: Nullspace Group)
By Jo-Ann Huang
Robots have long captured the human imagination. The idea that a machine can behave autonomously – think Star Wars’ C-3PO or the auto-bots in Transformers – is fascinating to the human mind.
Bringing out this fascination in kids is Singapore robotics school Nullspace Group. It puts together a range of robotics programmes for primary school to junior college students via its Centre for Robotics Learning. With the coming together of robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT), Alan Yong, technical director of Nullspace, believes there is no better time to introduce the world of robotics to children.
“The possibilities are endless,” he said, “When hardware and robotics projects connected with the internet, people started doing all sorts of things with it, such as lighting up a Christmas tree when an email comes in. Many companies are also developing robot security guards that can be controlled over the internet to replace human employees.”
Learning robotics also teaches children valuable life skills that they do not pick up in the classroom. “Doing robotics does not mean that you will become an engineer, but you learn to become a very good problem solver,” he explained.
For example, a “simple” problem such as making a robot climb a flight of stairs involves many different components that have to fit together into a cohesive solution. Change one aspect of the robot and you will have to consider the implications on the entire solution.
Alan’s passion for robots began in 1999, when he first tinkered with LEGO™ Robotics as a student in Bukit Panjang Government High. He has not looked back since. He even gave up pursuing his Massachusetts Institute of Technology Masters of Finance programme to run Nullspace with a group of friends he met at a national robotics competition while he was in secondary school. It was launched as a small startup in 2008.
“We were all from different schools. We set up Nullspace to provide competitive robotics training to our respective alma maters. We eventually started training more schools and set up our enrichment centre in 2013,” he said.
The entire journey was a steep learning curve for Alan and his team. “None of us had any idea what Nullspace would become. And of course, initially it was hard to convince new school clients to come on board as we all looked so young,” he said.
Nullspace has certainly come a long way since it first started. Early this year, it was appointed by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to conduct Code for Fun programme courses till 2018. Code for Fun is a joint programme by IMDA and the Ministry of Education to offer computational thinking and coding classes to all primary and secondary schools.
Nullspace also started the Centre for Robotics Learning in 2013, and will be opening another branch of the centre later this year. The school is also scaling up, having signed up five more schools and corporate clients this year, and now has a total of 25 clients.
“IMDA has been supportive in connecting us with industry partners and potential clients through the events that they organise and invite us to be a part of. In particular, we work closely with IMDA PIXEL Labs to run workshops and talks for the public, which gives us a lot of exposure,” he added. “Through these events we also gain a better sense of the needs in the market for us to better position the company.”
Nullspace also launched ThinkCrate, an educational electronic kit for kids and adults to have fun with mini-electronic projects at home. ThinkCrate's projects, which range from building a small mood lamp to an electronic piano, are based on the Arduino open-source electronic platform. Each ThinkCrate bundle has an instruction manual, which guides users in setting up and programming the hardware according to the project's requirements.
With Singapore's efforts to become a Smart Nation, Alan is looking forward to more exciting opportunities ahead. “In terms of robotics and IoT, the end goal is going to be even greater automation for industrial processes, security monitoring, data logging and big data. For supporting sectors, internet security and technology, education will play an even greater role in the coming years,” he said.