Students in Uganda Compete to Build Robotic Systems to Improve Farming

IEEE and MIT help participants prepare for the contest

13 November 2015

There’s nothing like a robotics competition to get preuniversity students excited about pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering, and math. But in a developing country like Uganda, access to the Internet, hardware, and a laboratory can make building and programming a robot from scratch a daunting task.

That’s where the IEEE Uganda Subsection, MIT, and Makerere University, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Africa, come in. For the past five years, they have worked together on Uganda’s annual Science and Technology Innovations Challenge Cup, which is aimed at secondary school students, ages 14 to 19. And like any hands-on STEM contest, they need engineers to serve as judges, mentors, and to provide technical assistance.

IEEE Members Ezabo Baron and Rukundo Joshua served as judges of projects entered in this year’s “Agricultural Transformation: The Role of Robotics” competition. Both belong to the IEEE Uganda Subsection. Baron also serves as the section’s publicity secretary. And he is a member of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.

ILabs@MAK—MIT’s online laboratory located at Makerere University’s College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, in Kampala—lets students share a single piece of experimentation hardware, alleviating the limitations on equipment and space associated with conventional labs. IEEE Graduate Student Member Malinga Ephraim and others who work at iLabs helped the students design and test their robotics projects in preparation for the challenge.

THE CONTEST

More than 85 percent of Uganda’s population live in rural areas and rely on subsistence agriculture so using robotics to make farms more productive is important. The contest is first held for schools located in each of Uganda’s four regions: northern, western, eastern and central. These were held in September and early October at various colleges throughout Uganda. Those students who successfully passed these competitions went on to compete in the national contest, which was held at Makerere University’s main hall.

In the regionals, teams of students from 19 schools vied to earn points by passing a quiz, and building and programing a robot that could successfully navigate the game field, according to Baron.

“It was the toughest round since the participating schools came from all four regions of Uganda,” says Baron. “I was pleased to be part of the panel of judges where a team of female students from Gayaza High School emerged the winners in the central region.” The all-girls boarding school is the oldest such school in the country.

Seven schools, including Gayaza, earned enough points to move on to the national, held on 16 October at Makerere University. Baron says students were judged on the quality of their presentation, the project’s originality, innovation, and relevance, and how well a job they did in applying their knowledge about robotics to the project.

AND THE WINNER IS

The winners were a team of 20 students from Namilyango College, an all-boys boarding school for middle- and high-school students located in the Mukono District in central Uganda. Their “Automated Farm House” was a greenhouse that included a temperature regulator unit, an automated irrigation unit, and a poultry house unit.

A sensor continuously measures the temperature inside the house and when it goes above the set threshold the fan turns on automatically and the convertible roof opens to release the warm air.

The irrigation unit uses sensors to read and display soil-moisture levels. When more water is needed, relay switches activate sprinklers. Baron notes that watering could only be done in the evenings to avoid evaporation through water vapor. Light-dependent resistors automatically turn on the electricity at night. A collection system stores rainwater to be used for watering.

A chicken coop was housed on the top floor of the farmhouse. The poultry unit uses an automated sweeper to collect the fowls’ droppings, which are used to fertilize the plants.

Photovoltaic panels are also used to provide electricity and an integrated closed-circuit television surveillance camera monitors the house.

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