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I'm a great fan of STEM, STEAM and other programs to get kids interested and involved in technology and so I was thrilled to see the latest product from DJI (the drone people).
This product is called Robomaster S1 and it's a "build it yourself" wheeled vehicle with quite significant programmability and configurability.
Best of all... it's got guns!
Woohoo... if anything will get kids excited it's a remotely controlled vehicle with guns that can be used to attack other vehicles with guns.
To be honest, when I first heard of the product (days before it was actually launched and while it was still shrouded in mystery behind a cloak of secrecy) I wasn't expecting too much. There have been many attempts to launch products like this but they have all failed the ultimate test -- will it get kids excited?
Almost without exception, even the best efforts of Lego and others have produced a rather ho-hum response from the target market.
I think DJI has got it right though and, depending on price, they could have a real winner with the Robomaster S1.
What makes the DJI product so different and more likely to succeed?
Well it just looks like so much damned fun! (Youtube promo video)
Whereas most of the previous attempts to enter this marketspace have required quite a bit of learning to use, this thing just needs to be snapped together and it's ready to work in its most basic form as a kind of RC truck that can be operated with any mobile phone or tablet. The inclusion of a camera so that it can be driven from a "first person view" perspective is also another winning component.
The time involved between opening the box and getting it rolling is probably short enough to fit inside the ever decreasing attention-span of the average kid. Any product that takes longer than this brief period will ultimately fail because if they can't start having fun before getting bored, the average kid will just throw stuff under their bed, never to be touched again.
By focusing on the "shoot em up" aspect of this vehicle and by including a "gel pellet gun" and infra-red light cannon, the Robomaster is far more than just a programmable wheeled vehicle, and that's critical to its success.
Just steering a 4-wheeled truck around the living room for an hour or two soon becomes boring but with this product, it's just the start of the experience. If you have someone with their own Robomaster then it's "battle-on!" and full-scale war can commence. Everyone loves a shoot-em-up, especially when it's a hi-tech one like this.
Kids will also be incentivised to learn to cut bits of code to improve their performance on the battlefield and I'm sure that there will be code blocks being shared on social media pretty soon, with each person seeking to refine their algorithms and optimise key elements of that code -- so as to have the upper hand in any match.
Before you know it, kids will be engaging in hard-core programming -- not simply for the sake of programming (like we did when we were young, because we were geeks), but because coding is now a battlefield tool and will help them win victory over their opponents.
I'd love one of these little machines... but at US$499, it's out of my league and, I suspect, also out of the affordable price range for many of the kids that would most benefit from it.
Perhaps the most important question that must be asked of this new product release however, is "why?".
DJI is a drone and camera manufacturer -- to get into robotics and the whole STEM/STEAM market seems like an odd choice, doesn't it?
Well I think they had little option, to be honest.
With highly restrictive regulations effectively about to cripple the previously buoyant sales of DJI's drones around the world they had to come up with new markets -- and this was a great place to leverage their expertise in consumer-grade remotely controlled "intelligent" vehicles.
With most countries now forbidding under 16-year-olds to fly drones or model aircraft (yes, it *is* true, the EU, Canada, the UK and Australia all have these rules either in effect or about to take effect), less restricted ground-based vehicles are the obvious alternative.
I still can't get over the way that ignorant politicians have killed the hobby that has, for so many decades, been the genesis of so many of the world's key industries, such as aviation, aerospace and engineering. In a generation's time we will find ourselves woefully short of the very people who should, right now, be taking an interest in model flying.
Never underestimate the idiocy and short-sightedness of politicians :-(
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