Flotilla Simplifies Electronics Tinkering — Just Add Pi

The U.K.-made low-cost Raspberry Pi microcomputer — which was itself conceived with the idea of encouraging kids to learn coding (yet ended up inspiring makers of all ages) — has been a fertile seeding ground for other computing and electronics education projects. Such as the kids’ focused DIY computer kit, Kano, which shipped its first batch of kits last fall, after raising some $1.5M in crowdfunding in 2013.

The Pi-powered momentum is evidently not letting up, either. Enter Flotilla: another electronics education project aiming to build on the Pi’s foundation, and make hardware tinkering more accessible to non-engineers.

Flotilla’s U.K. makers — a startup called Pimoroni which has previously made a kit for turning the Pi into an arcade machine, called Picade, and a colorful Pi case called the Pibow, among other products — is now raising crowdfunds on Kickstarter to get Flotilla to market by May. Development costs thus far have been funded by Pimoroni’s existing business.

Flotilla consists of a series of plug and play hardware modules that are controlled by a Pi but can be programmed via different software interfaces, depending on the user’s skill level. The price-point aims to be child-friendly too, with a starter kit (which includes two modules) costing £24/$36 to Kickstarter backers.

Hardware modules offered in the kits include components such as lights, motion sensors, color sensors, motors and so on. These are connected to a Pi (not itself included in the kits), via the Flotilla dock board, and are then programmed via web app interfaces.

The modules themselves are not wireless, so whatever you build with Flotilla is going to involve cables, but that does avoid the need for each module to pack its own battery.

At its most basic, the Flotilla kit will offer a series of electronics project ‘recipe cards’ setting out step-by-step instructions to build guided projects — such as creating a virtual pet, or making a line-following robot. The user then connects up the relevant hardware modules and follows some simple instructions via Flotilla’s Cookbook web app to create the project.

At this point the aim is to get kids and people with no experience interested and engaged with electronics — so there are also colorful cards that accompany the recipes to augment hardware projects with a little child-friendly paper-craft.

One step up from here, Flotilla offers a web app interface called Rockpool where users can play around a bit more by creating rules that link their various hardware modules together. Again no programming knowledge is required  but the user is encouraged to engage with underlying logic concepts.

To enable progression beyond this, the team says it is also working on adding support for the Scratch graphical programming language. And has added Python support, building its own libraries and documentation to ensure a streamlined experience.

“Flotilla can be a great prototyping or training tool, saving you tons of time. It has plug and play simplicity, code libraries, example projects, and full documentation,” it notes on its Kickstarter page.

The initial plan is to launch Flotilla with 12 modules, although more are planned — and the team has already passed its original funding target, with just under £44,000 ($66,700) pledged at the time of writing and another 27 days left of their campaign to run. So they’re well on their way to getting this concept to market.

“Flotilla was something we started talking about early last year and we spent a lot of time trying out ideas and getting feedback — the original inspiration was to make something that people of any ability level can immediately work with — progressing their skills at their own pace. To us that’s absolutely crucial,” Pimoroni co-founder Jon Williamson tells TechCrunch.

“Big vision wise we have around 30 other modules we’re considering along with more Cookbook recipes and projects — the key point for us it keeping the pricing at the pocket-money level.”

Flotilla is by no means the only ‘electronics made easier’ outfit in town. There are increasing numbers of learner kits available, whether it’s LittleBits or Adafruit’s energetic efforts, or the forthcoming SAM wireless connected object maker modules which pulled in around £125,000 on Kickstarter last year. But Pimoroni still reckons there’s room for another thoughtful take, which aims to widen electronics’ appeal and build in stepped progression to aid learning.

In the U.K. there has been fresh impetus for startups to attack this space with the launch last year of an overhauled computing curriculum in England which requires schools to teach kids coding — thereby pushing up demand for products which break down electronics and programming into bite-sized chunks.

Williamson says Pimoroni is hoping Flotilla will attract interest from schools and teachers down the line — “by providing teachers with a reliable, simple framework to build lesson plans on”, as he puts it — although the initial target is evidently home hobbyists, parents wanting to inspire their kids, and makers wanting a quicker way to build projects.

“We’d like to approach the education market with it properly including producing full classroom materials — that’s not part of our core skill-set but we’re looking to find people that can help!” he adds.