Magazine November 2018

Arkansas Son Makes Waves In Robotics

Robotics

by Dustin Jayroe | Photography by Meredith Mashburn

Robotics

A junior at the University of Arkansas, Canon Reeves has already accomplished more in his first 20 years of life than most people do in a lifetime. Reeves is a roboticist, a student and an entrepreneur and he’s the new face of STEM in Arkansas.

Reeves first started building robots at Riverview High School in Searcy and was a member of the robotics team there. During his junior year of high school, he transferred to the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts (ASMSA) due to his interest in robotics.

Located in Hot Springs, ASMSA is a two-year, public residential high school and is a part of the University of Arkansas administrative system. ASMSA is also a member of the National Consortium of Secondary STEM Schools and is accredited as one of the top high schools in the country. Reeves’ time in Hot Springs proved to have a profound impact on his life and career and is where he first started learning how to create his own robots in depth.

Two of the most significant influences in Reeves’ professional career thus far have been Nick Seward, at ASMSA, and Clint Johnson, at the University of Arkansas. “Nick taught me a lot of the technical concepts that I use regularly, and Clint was the first one to expose me to entrepreneurship,” Reeves says. “[Nick] helped me learn the ‘why’ behind the tech I had fallen in love with developing.”

Although Reeves notes the importance of his education and these relationships that have helped mold him into what he is today, it is hard for him not to fall back to an admirable humility to explain it all. “To be honest, I just got lucky,” he says.

Robotics

At the University of Arkansas, Reeves is pursuing a major in computer science, is the co-captain of the university’s NASA Robotic Mining Competition team and is the Creative Director at the McMillon Innovation Studio. His involvement with McMillon has proven to be a “game changer.” He has also founded three companies during his first three years at college – MORE Technologies, ArkanCode and Lovelace Technologies.

Earlier this year, Reeves took part in a competition put on by the McMillon Innovation Studio, in conjunction with Tyson Foods, Inc., Texas Instruments and Startup Junkie. The contest involved presenting business and engineering students with a real-world business problem, for which they were asked to design a solution. Reeves and his team, under the name Lovelace Technologies, won first place.

Lovelace Technologies created a low-cost method for Tyson Foods to conduct inventory tracking in real time, as well as a notification system for employees to alert them when an item is missing. They developed a small module that can read any radio-frequency identification tag in a range of 16 feet, which they called “rfind.” After winning the $10,000 grand prize, the team made Lovelace Technologies an official company, aiming to use their rfind boxes to help other companies solve similar asset tracking problems.

Winning competitions has become commonplace for Reeves, as he led another team to victory this year at the Northwest Arkansas Startup Weekend. Reeves set out on a mission to create a robot that could teach children valuable Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) skills, but within an affordable price range by containing parts that could be either 3D printed or purchased at Wal-Mart. Reeves’ creation also boasts a modular design, which makes it easier to modify with add-ons that could turn it into almost anything one desired.

The idea to create more accessible educational tools via robotics was seeded in Reeves’ mind because of his younger sister, Kendra. He and Kendra have always had a very close-knit bond, despite her being eight years younger than him. Moving out at the age of sixteen to attend ASMSA and then the University of Arkansas has limited the amount of quality time between the siblings, which was very difficult for him. But, the time they did spend together proved to be consequential for both of them.

Reeves has very fond memories of the weekends he was able to spend at home in high school when he and Kendra would conduct science experiments together in the kitchen. One weekend during his freshmen year of college, Kendra told him that she wanted to build a robot, just like her big brother.

“I was elated,” Cannon says. “I shopped around and picked a robot that was in my price range. We built the robot when I returned home, and there was this very special moment the first time she turned it on. Her face lit up with excitement the second the robot came to life. You could see the passion and intrigue, and I could not have been happier.”

Unfortunately, that was the last time that robot got used because the moment Kendra turned it on was the moment she had gained all of the educational depth possible from that particular robot. Reeves grew frustrated that there was not an affordable robot kit that could teach his sister and others like her about STEM, while also providing the resources for continuous learning and exploring.

After the success at the Northwest Arkansas Startup Weekend, Reeves founded the company MORE Technologies (Modular Open-source Robotics Ecosystem), and he currently serves as CEO. With MORE Technologies, Reeves hopes to give more people the access to some of the same robotic and STEM experience that he had, to unlock a host of potential career opportunities for them, which they may not have received otherwise.
Since creation, MORE Technologies has increased its team size to eight, and they have built robots with over 100 individuals, demographically comprised of about 80 percent kids and 20 percent adults. This past summer, MORE Technologies pitched to the Delta I-Fund Investment Committee and was awarded the maximum investment that they offer – $50,000. They plan to use that investment to increase their manufacturing capabilities by doubling their 3D print farm from six printers to twelve.

They also plan to launch a Kickstarter campaign in December. As Reeves puts it, “We are taking the crowdfunding route for the crowd, not the funding. Our robots are fully open source, so anyone can download our parts and design their own new parts to work with ours.” MORE Technologies will provide their Kickstarter backers with early access to their robots, early bird pricing, and the ability to collaborate with them on robot builds.

One of the coolest things that Reeves says he has been a part of was a 72-hour self-driving car challenge in Australia last February. He was one of only 35 participants selected from all over the world, for a competition to turn an old Subaru into a self-driving vehicle in just three days.

“It felt like something out of a movie,” Reeves jokes. “Imagine a bunch of programmers and engineers working on old cars scattered across a farm. We slept in tents and woke up to kangaroos and cane toads… It was bizarre because just a few days later I was back in class learning about public speaking and programming in Python.”

Robotics

Reeves and MORE Technologies co-founder and COO Peyton Smith.

Reeves’ team was one of only three who achieved remote functionality, although no team was able to accomplish complete autonomy.

As for the future of robotics and how that may affect day-to-day life for humans, Reeves is optimistic. “In 10 years I imagine it will be commonplace to see Amazon’s Alexa reincarnated as a robot in most households,” Reeves says. “The key is creating a robot that is three things: multi-functional, mobile and adaptable. The Roomba is the only consumer friendly robot so far that’s come close to these things. The only thing a Roomba lacks is multi-functionality.”

Reeves lists three specific things that need to happen before home robotics can truly take off:
1. Better processors – Making a robot that can adapt to any home requires very processor-intensive algorithms. We’ll need to optimize the underlying algorithms further eventually, but first, we need a computer that can handle them in their early stages.

2. Cheaper, high-quality motors – There are amazingly precise and robust industrial robots, but the underlying technology that makes them any different from the robots we develop is far too expensive for a consumer grade product.

3. A shifted public opinion – People need to see robots as the tools that they can be and embrace the ways that they can improve life.

Robotics

Reeves has career goals that are centered on having a positive impact on the world, as is evident by his mission with MORE Technologies. Although, some of his ambitions are notably more aggressive than others, they all involve helping humanity in some way, including his most ambitious endeavor.

“I want to start a robot space company that helps us colonize Mars,” Reeves says. “This may be far-fetched, but I think the timing is right. For all of history, people have been the early adopters… Humans worked factory jobs long before a robot could. Space, however, is quite different. It’s much easier to put a robot in space than it is a human, so we’re going to need robots to build up habitats on Mars before we can send people.”

Canon’s experience with NASA, via the Robotic Mining Competition, is what inspired him to consider such a venture. If he were able to contribute in any way to a robotic space mission, he says that it would be one of the highlights of his career.

Though he is just a junior in college, Reeves has already established himself a very impressive resume. His ability to remain grounded through success, and continually strive for more has allowed him to adapt and grow, just like the robots that he creates. In his mind, high school taught him to be a “techie,” and college taught him to be an entrepreneur. Now, he is both, and the canvas of the future is as big as his imagination can conjure.

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