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African Robotics Inspiring Future

Robotics, STEM, Africa8 min read

Nelson Elijah

Meet Nelson Elijah

Robotics Developer Intern @ Reflect Robotics

Nigeria, West Africa 

Nelson Elijah is currently an undergraduate student at Covenant University who aspires to become a robotics entrepreneur.

He possesses an aptitude for learning, working, research, and executing new concepts. Nelson is a versatile learner, proficient in Hardware and Embedded systems programming and design.


What inspired you to pursue a career in robotics?

I think one of the most common things amongst toddlers is the knack to try new things.

From the onset, I never had an interest in robotics, talking more about electronics. I recall vividly, I had wanted to be a banker; because I thought then that they held all the money in the world.

I changed that notion to wanting to be an astronaut because I read about all their works in some science book (this was the closest I came to robotics maybe.) 

I kept trying different things and I read various books, till I came across a motor at a young age.

I was so delighted when I got the motor to spin by applying the regular 9v battery. My joy knew no bounds when I got some LED to light by just applying a voltage between its terminals. Little did I know that this will lead to my interest in robotics.

I found this new hobby interesting and kept tinkering with whatever I could find.

A time came where I spoilt my dad’s radio and took its motor, so naive of me to think that the radio was still going to work.

These little acts defined my path and got me interested in electronics, leading me to take Electrical Engineering as my Major. Mind you, I hadn’t even gotten a hunch on robotics, I just thought Electrical Engineers could work anywhere (which is still true).

But what got me hooked on robotics funny enough was the poor quality of Education in my country, Nigeria.

I was fully excited about going to study Electrical Engineering and thought I was going to work on cool projects. But on entering University, as I researched and read, I knew this wasn’t the case. I watched a ton of state-of-the-art projects done by other undergraduates all over the world. But strangely, Nigeria seemed different; our curriculum wasn’t close to this. 

This experience is what I believe piqued my curiosity and this eventually led to my love for robotics. Why?

Cause I believe robotics can change the STEM field, and robotics can bring my country and continent to the forefront of innovation and global civilization. 

Any challenges you had in the development of robotics?

Should I say sadly? No! Well, I haven’t worked on a rocket ship to take people to Mars, but I have certainly built some projects that I learned a ton from. 

One of the major challenges in robotics is the cost.

Good knowledge is expensive, and what’s more expensive? Trying to acquire this knowledge on your own. To practice what you’ve learned, you need to have kits or some hardware that can act based on your command in the real world. 

As a college student, I have tried to overcome this by helping my college students build their mini projects, for which I get paid. And, my dad is my biggest fan and investor. So, he helps me too with some expenses so I can get the knowledge I seek since our curriculum can’t help it, sigh!

Another challenge is Quality Education.

I’ve complained about my country’s educational system, and someone might say, well, you can easily learn online (Udacity or Udemy) could help. Yeah, no doubt! But compared to a hands-on experience at MIT, there’s really a whole lot missing. Feedback from professors or communities really matters. You could take all the courses you want, but an Ivy League graduate in Engineering will always stand out in the real world. This is because of the rigorous training undergone. 

To overcome this, I plan to Master Robotics hopefully at MIT or Stanford. 

Note that I’m using Ivy League schools as a reference to other good schools teaching robotics as I also have a thing for ETH Zurich.

How do you see the future of robotics in Nigeria? 

The beauty of Nigeria is that it is a land untapped, a journey to be traveled and a mystery to be unraveled.

Nigeria is still in its infancy and the best is yet to come I believe. Whilst companies abroad have gone far in robotics research and development even to the extent of rolling out 4g on the moon, hope seems to beam on various sectors in Nigeria. 

Our biggest revenue as a country came from Agriculture before our monopolistic attitude to Oil. Robotics can really transform how we view Agriculture.

If well implemented, I’m sure we would reduce our import on crops and since we have one of the best climates for growing major crops, we in no time will become one of the major suppliers of some crops thereby increasing our GDP. 

Another sector in Nigeria where robotics could transform is our transportation sector. With a population of over 201 million people, a well-established high-speed train network can go a long way. This will ease the transport of goods and services over the country without the need for everyone to even ride their cars during the week.

Other sectors like Manufacturing, Aviation, Education are still up for transformation too. You never know until you come to take a look at the opportunities begging to be explored in Nigeria. Soon, we might be landing on the moon. Who can tell?

Do you have any robotics project you want to share and explain your experience with us?

Definitely, I do. You can’t just read robotics, you must validate your thought with practice, to fully conceptualize the real world. I have worked on a lot of projects, but I’m going to write about just 3 major ones.

So the first project I’m going to write about is a Self-driving vacuum cleaner. This project taught me the importance of attention to detail and how the customer is king. I was asked if I could build the project, and I said yes knowing little to nothing about self-driving technology.

I immediately bought some courses and ran through a ton of YouTube videos; this got me started. I began to learn a whole lot as I was building. Trust me, frustration was the daily bread. Skewing from one link to the other was the order of the day. And eventually, the camera of the car gave way, I couldn’t incur more costs. 

I really racked my head on how to go about this. After deliberating, the customer then agreed on a line following the robot. And immediately, I thought of the simplest thing, an infrared sensor to detect a black lane.

This was the breakthrough from all the hassle. The project was successful, and I got paid. Well, as I write, I’m not all that proud that I got something to work on.

I promised myself that I would learn harder, program better, and learn more complex technologies. Till now, I’m still hooked on self-driving technology and learning my way up there as a Nigerian college student who sees Africa as a leader in robotics too.

The second project I worked on was a smart meter (not really robotics). This project was an entry into a competition organized by a state in my country. We were given specifications to design a smart meter for under $30 that could help improve the interaction with customers’ electricity consumption. As it always happens, I always know so little about the project, but one gift I have is a stubborn grit to see to the end of a challenge, all thanks to God.

I gathered some friends and we started building. I oversaw project management and embedded systems designs. We did our best but didn’t make it to the finals for the competition. 

Why then am I talking about the project? Well, it’s because this project taught me one of the biggest lessons in my life; the importance of strategy and excellence.

Even with my stubborn grit, I knew I wasn’t close to intermediate in embedded systems designs and hence, it took me a lot more time wandering rather than thinking about building the project.

So rather than having a good strategy, we just spent time as a team beating around the bush till the day of the competition. And please I beg you. You don’t want to see us present. We were as startled as a deer in headlights.

The third project is a drone I built. I have always been and still am fascinated by flying robots. It was my first real project. I had begun learning about embedded systems and was tinkering with Arduino. So, to really put my skills to use, I took on this project. I began learning alongside some tutorials on YouTube and it was successful gracefully.

Although I had loads of loopholes, as the days go by, I am beginning to understand better the drone I built-in 2018. This project taught me the art of resilience and the will to learn.

What do you think is a significant bottleneck for the development of mobile robots in Nigeria?

If we’re talking Nigeria here, then it’s a whole lot with inadequate knowledge as being the most significant bottleneck.

But globally based on some research in top robotics countries like China, Japan, and the USA, I can say that there’s a lot of improvement in the development of mobile robots. Manufacturing seems to be having the hand of it.

Companies like Kiva Systems (now Amazon Robotics), iRobot, and clear path robotics seem to be thriving. 

Mention any read about robotics that recently has your attention and why?

This is almost difficult; there’s an entire trail of exciting articles. But, I mean, who isn’t interested in something that can walk, fly, and act autonomously. 

You’ll know I’m very passionate about robotics education from my writing, probably because I didn’t have the best of it as an undergraduate. 

So, one thing that caught my attention recently was a commencement speech by Gwynne Shotwell (CTO, SpaceX).

In this speech, she said a lot of good things and her exciting history. But one thing that got me hooked was her deep concern for the poor grades on Math and Science tests by students in the United States. She purported that China comes first and Ireland comes 12th with the USA coming 25th. 

This got me thinking, so where is Nigeria? If the AI revolution is coming, why should we miss it?

This calls for a need to revamp the educational system and promote STEM across all areas of the country. This is what guides us to the revolution we seek.

What resources do you think are needed to impulse the future African robotics industry?

Honestly, I think the answers are as clear as day.nAt the heart of robotics are research and development. But how can you research and improve development when the foundation is not solid. 

So, what resources do we need for this revolution? A new curriculum. Should teach Robotics from as early as 3rd grade. STEM initiatives across the country.

Funding from the government to boost research and development. Development of robotics institutes dedicated to research and development. Alongside this, human commitment is probably the essential resource.

What tools are the ones mostly use for robotics development?

I think there are a lot of tools to pick, but funny enough, I don’t believe you have a choice because you need to learn different tools even if they’re related as it mostly depends on what you are building. 

For now, my primary interest in Robotics is in Controls, Embedded Systems, and Computer Vision.

Can locate the tools I love working with can be found at an intersection between the three fields. Examples are ROS, Cameras, Lidars, Embedded Hardware.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 to 10 years in the robotics industry?

“You cannot always predict where the path is, but what you can do is wake up every morning and make a decision that will lead you to the zenith” - Sebastian Thrun.

Sebastian Thrun is one of my biggest inspirations in robotics, and from the above statement, the best way to learn is to go small, then go big.

So, where do I see myself? Well, maybe I might be working on state-of-the-art robotics systems worldwide, or I might be involved in decentralizing robotics education globally.

Mention a Robotics developer or project from Africa that is an inspiration to you?

For this, my hat goes off to the CEO, Reach Robotics, Silas Adekunle. He’s created a new type of gaming robot and has used this to teach robotics to youngsters across Africa; there is a revolution happening right before our eyes.


For more about Nelson Elijah's projects go to Twitter @playfulEEEnginr and on Goodwall @Nelson Elijah