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$99 robot rolls into classrooms

After four years of development, researchers are unleashing a $99 robot that looks like a toy bird but is actually a carefully designed tool for teaching computer science.

The Finch robot is a product of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute. The two-wheeled gizmo, sheathed in white plastic, is equipped with temperature and light sensors, a three-axis accelerometer and a bump sensor, color-programmable LED lights, a beeper and speakers. It draws its power and its instructions via a 15-foot USB cable that's connected to a computer, so there's no need for batteries or a big onboard brain.

Stick a pencil in its tail, and it's a programmable drawing device. Tweak its software from a different angle, and it's a cute little alarm clock, or a pint-sized dancer with disco lights.

"Students are more interested and more motivated when they can work with something interactive and create programs that operate in the real world," Tom Lauwers, an instructor in the Robotics Institute's CREATE Lab, said in a Carnegie Mellon news release. "We packed Finch with sensors and mechanisms that engage the eyes, the ears — as many senses as possible."

Lauwers has launched a startup company called BirdBrain Technologies to produce the Finches and sell them online for $99 each (with volume discounts available). Right now, the Finch can be programmed with the Java and Python computer languages, and support for other languages and environments are coming. Educators can already draw upon an array of assignments and programs uploaded to the Finchrobot website. I can't wait to see what happens once computer hackers start creating Frankenfinches.

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