Servo Magazine ( January 2017 )
The Robotics Cottage Industry is Alive and Well
I love visiting the Kickstarter site for inspiration and a glimpse of the worldwide robotics cottage industry. At last count, there were over 1,400 Kickstarter robotics projects listed — mainly from the US, EU, Australia, and Canada. Most are toys with an educational bent, with a focus on teaching some robotic and/or programming skill to kids.
Some are quite serious high-end projects, such as sophisticated 3D printers, robotic arms, and underwater tethered drones. Buy-in prices range from $5 for small toy robots to over $3,000 for the underwater drone.
If you’re new to Kickstarter, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the site. Individuals or groups pitch a project and estimate a cost for producing a certain number of systems. If you want one of those systems at some future date, you have to pledge the requested amount.
If the full pledge amount isn’t received, everyone walks away from the deal and you owe nothing. The especially exciting deals are the ones that receive multiples of their required buy-in — a great sign for the project and the project area.
Based on multiples of buy-in, the hottest robotic project on the site the day I looked at it was a table tennis robot at 320% buy-in (100% being fully funded), and over $250K raised. The pledge period wasn’t even finished yet.
There are a few dozen projects with zero interest, and a few dozen more hovering around 10%-15% funded. That’s what’s so great about the Kickstarter business model. Why waste time bringing a robot to market only to find that there is little to no interest? Better to know before you start, and rethink the design and start another Kickstarter offering.
Of course, raising the funding is just one step in the process. The robot has to be built, tested, and shipped to the customers. The Kickstarter site is also littered with road kill — projects that were funded but for one reason or another never shipped a product.
The notes from these projects make for great reading. They’re a practical lesson on what not to do or what to look for in terms of potential potholes.
For example, notes on one robotic project reveal that the developers had no idea of the cost or time required for machining titanium parts. After designing and building their first prototype, they realized that the cost for machining each robot was more than they were asking from contributors. That’s a good lesson to learn — as long as someone else is paying for the lesson.
Kickstarter is also great for assessing the relative popularity of various microcontrollers. At the time of this writing, the Arduino is in the lead for US robotics projects, closely followed by the Raspberry Pi. The Arduino is hands-down the most popular for robotics in the EU.
Kickstarter changes daily; this is just one snapshot. By the time you read this, the mix will likely be different and dozens — if not hundreds — of new projects listed. Who knows, you might find a few worth supporting. SV