Lego for life

E&T profiles Bee Thakore, the engineer who wants to change the world with a little plastic brick.

Bee Thakore wants to change the world with a little plastic brick. And that's not all: she wants to change outer space too.

Lego is UK's most popular toy of all time, beating Barbie and Meccano, according to a survey published by the British Association of Toy Retailers some years back. Now Thakore, shortlisted for the IET's Young Woman Engineer of the Year award, wants to hook in a range of beneficiaries: from astronauts to Indian villagers. Lego, she feels, should be regarded not as a toy but as an important tool that can save lives, and her ambition to harness tens of millions of people around the world via the Internet will help them to help themselves.

"I want to use the constructive play in Lego to unleash insight, inspiration and imagination - of those people like you and me in an office environment - to solve a number of challenges."

Crowdsourcing

The idea is not new: it's called 'crowdsourcing', and been around for years. The theory is that a million minds are better than one.

Crowdsourcing is a buzzword of the moment, but its uses have so far been quite limited: for instance, getting masses of people with Internet connections to scan Google Earth photographs for missing aviators whose exact location is unknown. 

The job here is quite a simple one for many humans working collaboratively: computers find it harder, even at their current processing competence, to scan photos for details of a crashed plane in visually complex terrain photographs. If you have a thousand people doing a job, each covering an allotted area, so much the better: it can be completed quickly.

Gas station farm on the Moon

The jobs that Thakore and her team have in mind are more demanding, but they hope to tap into the versatility of the Lego brick in order to bring out the inner engineer in all of us.

The team hopes to encourage the use of the bricks, wheels, levers and motors to build models, robots and other constructions. The ideas will originate with children or "not-so-young children" playing at home. The plans will then transmit via the Internet using a design program that visualises the construction. Ultimately, the idea will be reconstructed in real Lego pieces by the end-users. These end-users could - in theory, at least - be 380,000km away on the Moon.

"An isolated foreign environment like another planetary surface is undoubtedly a serious, complex challenge," Thakore says.

 Her boss, Lewis Pinault, a senior director at Lego, proposed Lego projects on the Moon back in 2006. Thakore needed to pool a few resources to embellish this concept: "I wanted to get input from a large pool of engineers, technologists and robotics fans - fellow geeks like me - to work on what it takes to survive on the Moon."

Having spent years moving around in the space industry, interning here and there, and with many contacts and even posts in international space bodies, Thakore has her own pet project: to put a 'gas station' farm on the Moon, containing silos of compressed oxygen and hydrogen which can be combined to form water - a prerequisite for a manned space station.

She is also mulling the idea of a fleet of unmanned rovers that can prospect for either frozen hydrogen or ice, which some scientists believe can be found on the Moon. It is these rovers - which will be self-reconstructing - that will initially be the focus of individualised designs beamed from Earthbound Lego users.

All of this, of course, is just the beginning: Thakore thinks a future Moon base could see a flow of continuous small innovation, as planet Earth helps astronauts build "sort of real-life".

Low-tech solutions

Lego - for those who left it behind in the toybox - now has many sophisticated robotic and constructive elements: wheels, motors, sensors, arm levers - a whole toolbox of engineering devices in miniature. While Lego pieces will never replace the hardcore technology stuff of Nasa or the ESA, it's also worth noting that many life-saving solutions in space have been surprisingly low-tech.

Perhaps the most iconic example was when Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong's second-in-command, broke one of the circuit breakers that was supposed to launch the lander off the Moon. It occurred to Aldrin to take a ballpoint pen they happened to have with them and jam it into the right place. Life-or-death decisions don't have to be too complex.

Even more alarming problems were solved in an equally ad hoc way by the unlucky astronauts on Apollo 13. They were assisted in their improvised journey back to Earth by Mission Control. But what if a less acute problem were to crop up on some future Moon base? A crowdsourced base of people with access to Lego might devise a solution to the problem.

If you are still unconvinced by the possibility, take note that the Apollo 13 module had less computing power than Lego's 21st century brain unit, which runs the Lego robot range for teenagers. So a Mars rover made of Lego whose plan of construction was beamed up from an amateur on Earth is really quite possible: different constructions for different purposes - and let the best one win!

Back to earth

Thakore's ambitions do not, however, rest entirely outside the Earth's atmosphere.

"I care greatly about world poverty," she says. "Collective solutions could be found for village pumps in India using Lego. When working briefly at the X-prize foundation, I looked at broader challenges such as health and sanitation; and I looked at social improvements - including a device that could produce drinking water from flood water or any polluted source and channel it to water pumps attached to playground equipment, so that tribal families can send their children to school where they will also be able to fetch water for them."

How to put the ideas across? Even the smallest community has an Internet connection these days: Lego's design program, which virtualises bricks and allows what was previously limited to physical construction on the playroom floor to take place in cyberspace, is by definition hugely visual.

"The design can be followed by anyone as it is the common language they share," says Thakore.

And this is just scratching the surface. Between rural India and the Moon, there may be thousands of engineering problems to be solved using crowdsourcing, and many more people with the capabilities of solving them.

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