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Friday, September 15, 2017, 12:26
Educational drone maker takes to water
By Deng Yanzi in Shenzhen
Friday, September 15, 2017, 12:26 By Deng Yanzi in Shenzhen

Editor’s note: An entrepreneur in the world’s capital of drone making has decided to concentrate on educational devices which users can modify themselves­ — a fast-growing market. He leaves the fiercely competitive flying-camera market to established giants.

(BILLY WONG / CHINA DAILY)

Just as we grow used to the scene of flying drones in the sky, Shenzhen-based robot maker and entrepreneur Jasen Wang Jianjun makes a versatile drone that can also explore the waters.

The modular drone, with a soft styrofoam frame and magnetic modules,can be easily taken apart and restructured into a hovercraft, and many other things.

Wang hopes to give users the freedom to design how they want the drone to move by letting them program their instructions on a smartphone and tablet application, and make it simple enough for young children to use.

Children can learn the basics of programming, while they enjoy the process of creating their own drone.

The drone, dubbed Airblock, is Shenzhen startup Makeblock’s latest educational robot, following its successful offering of robot-building kits that let users create programmable rovers such as the mBot robot kit.

Our drone is a carrier of a learning experience, while a DJI drone is the carrier of cameras. We position our products in totally different ways

Jasen Wang Jianjun, Shenzhen-based robot maker and entrepreneur

Since he was young, Wang’s passion has been in the sky. “My dream since middle school has always been about airplanes and I wanted to become an aircraft designer someday,” the 32-year old entrepreneur recalled.

Wang went on to study aircraft design in the Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, only to realize the role of aircraft designer in a gigantic organization would be like “a screw” along an assembly line.

Yet, in the university, Wang developed his passion for robots, with his active presence in robotics-related communities and competitions. Upon graduation in 2010, Wang had a clear aim in mind — starting his own robotics company.

With this goal in mind, he took time to work as an electronics engineer in Shenzhen for a year, hoping to strengthen his knowledge and experience in electronics and software, and to prepare an entrepreneurial plan.

“I took the year as an interim between my academic and entrepreneurial life. If I started right away after my graduation, I wouldn’t have known enough about what’s outside the campus,” he said.

Wang’s original idea was to make more complex robots “like what we can see in the movies”, but he lacked the manpower and funding to make it happen.

He remembered the problems he faced as a maker in university, when he had the ideas for building a robot but could not find the right parts to put it together.

Eventually in 2012, Wang started Makeblock to serve makers like himself, by offering electronics, sensors and other parts they need, bundled in kits.

He compared Makeblock parts and modules to Lego pieces for adults, but with more varied possibilities in terms of what they are capable of creating.

As Makeblock grew, the company started to explore a bigger market — the education field.

Wang observed an increasing demand from family, schools and education organizations as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) education gained popularity on a global scale.

The overseas market became the major driver behind the growth of Makeblock’s educational robots and kits, accounting for 70 percent of Makeblock’s 120 million yuan (US$19 million) sales last year, according to the company.

Selling the mBot kit at US$94.99 and Airblock at US$179.99, the Makeblock products still serve a more high-end market at the moment, and developed regions such as Europe and North America have bigger demand than its home market, he said.

STEAM education is more mature abroad but the challenge for the company is to find the right local partners to distribute our products, Wang said.

He also anticipated the domestic market would take off as China’s education authorities have been catching up with its promotion for STEAM education. However, Wang was concerned that a lack of qualified teachers would hinder the growth of STEAM education.

“Our system has been training our teachers to focus on exam-oriented education,” he said.

According to a white paper published by the Smart Learning Institute of Beijing Normal University, the global market for educational service robots and robotic kits will surpass US$11.1 billion.

In the meantime, an increasing number of smart toys have adopted the concept of STEAM education. A report by the Toy Industry Association in the US revealed that products for STEAM education purposes will account for 5 percent of toy revenues.

The global toy market was estimated at US$80 billion in 2013 and growing at 4.17 percent a year, Infiniti Research said in 2014.

Makeblock’s learning-oriented drone has also sidestepped the heated drone market dominated by Shenzhen-based DJI, which has 80 percent of the global market for consumer and commercial drones.

Sticking to the education market, Makeblock chose to stay clear of drones with cameras.

“Our drone is a carrier of a learning experience, while a DJI drone is the carrier of cameras. We position our products  in totally different ways,”Wang said.

“DJI has a huge advantage in drones for aerial photography, and it is very hard for other drone makers to compete directly with them in the same category,” he concluded.

Makeblock, now with 450 staff, raised 200 million yuan (US$30 million) in series B funding from Chinese investors Evolution Media China and Shenzhen Venture Capital in March.

iris@chinadailyhk.com

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