A young University of Melbourne graduate with a social conscience is combining her engineering skill set with her talent for business to produce affordable robotics.
Improving the lives of everyday individuals through the use of robotic technology has been a long-time goal of Victorian computer engineer and young entrepreneur Marita Cheng.
The holder of bachelor degrees in mechanical engineering and computer science from the University of Melbourne, Ms Cheng was named Young Australian of the Year in 2012, in recognition of her role as founder and executive director of Robogals Global.
An outreach program which aims to encourage more girls to pursue careers in the engineering and technology sectors by sending engineering students into schools to teach girls robotics, the Robogals movement has worked with 50,000 girls across nine countries.
It has chapters in Australia, the US, the UK and Japan and continues to run workshops, career talks, and community activities.
Ms Cheng has spent the past three years developing the Teleport Robot, a low-cost, telepresence device which can be used for a variety of communication and therapeutic purposes.
Designed and assembled locally by her Melbourne start-up venture 2Mar Robotics, with financial assistance from the State Government of Victoria in the form of a Technology Development Voucher, the first 100 orders for the Teleport are due to ship in late 2016.
Foundation customers include offices, co-working spaces, museums and hospitals across Australia. Ms Cheng also intends to market the robot internationally, in conjunction with a major technology partner, at upcoming health technology fairs in Europe and Latin America.
With a ticket price of A$3,800 plus taxes, the Teleport is expected to have broad appeal to customers in both the developed and developing world.
A second device is being developed by Cheng and her staff of six engineering students and recent graduates, who work out of the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond.
Created to assist people with disabilities and impaired mobility to enjoy greater independence, the Jeva robotic arm is controllable via iOS and Android, the dominant operating systems for smartphones and mobile devices.
Designed in collaboration with care organisations including the Australian Spinal Cord Injuries Association and the Australian Quadriplegic Association, the Jeva is intended to help users perform simple mobility-related tasks. These include self-feeding, picking up objects from the ground or other inaccessible places, opening doors and even the simple act of scratching.
In the future, Ms Cheng hopes to combine the Teleport and the Jeva to create a telepresence robot with an attached arm.
2Mar’s young team also draws on the experience of collaborator and mentor Dianne Boddy, a renowned Victorian mechanical engineer who has registered more than 40 patents and completed 2,000 designs for the mining and manufacturing sectors during a 60-year career.
Hard work, persistence and access to world class expertise have all been vital to transforming her vision for low-cost, locally designed and developed robotic devices into reality, according to Ms Cheng.
“I’ve worked with some outstanding young engineers here in Australia and we’ve all worked really, really hard,” she says.