The Hong Kong workshop teaching kids to make drones, robots, wearable tech and 3D printers: MakerBay the new high-tech haven for young innovators

Newly opened space for inventors to swap ideas and teach informal classes lets kids and adults build their own drones, robots - even 3D printers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 February, 2016, 2:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 February, 2016, 5:36pm

Joe Chew is only six years old but he has already built his own drone and inspired his father to teach a class on quadcopters to six young kids at Hong Kong’s MakerBay, a place for inventors to pool ideas, mingle, teach and learn in Kowloon that officially opened January 30.

On the last Sunday of January, Chew junior was busy handing out scissors and other equipment as an assistant to his father, who hails from Malaysia, at their first drone-making class in the city.

Drone enthusiast Ken Chew wanted to show that unmanned aerial vehicles, as drone makers prefer to call them, are more than just toys.

WATCH: Build your own drone, robot or 3D printer at Hong Kong’s MakerBay

“Now drone technology has become such a commercial thing, you can go to any hobby shop and buy one,” Chew senior said.

“I’m trying to spread awareness so that people understand that drones are not necessarily a bad thing, they can do a lot of good.”

Sales of drones that function as “flying cameras” took off in a big way last year and local manufacturers

expect the global market to double in size annually for the next few years.

China’s DJI, which is based in the southern manufacturing hub of Shenzhen but plans to open a retail store in South Korea next month, commands over 70 per cent of the global market for civilian drones. It is one of scores of drone makers in the industrial city in Guangdong province.

However, drones have uses far beyond this, including agricultural mapping, first aid delivery - even firefighting.

Amazon has been experimenting with drones to deliver packages for years, while Singapore Post used one to successfully deliver a package to the nearby island of Palau Ubin in October as part of its vision of developing into a “smart nation”.

Chew, an IT consultant and inventor, became interested in drones two years ago and now uses the UAVs he builds to compensate for his childhood dream of becoming a pilot.

He has turned his hobby into a business and flies his creations over plantations to check for diseased crops and to assess which areas need more fertiliser.

The Sunday class at MakerBay, a warehouse-turned-workshop and community space, taught the children practical skills as they assembled the drone using a STM32 microcontroller, motors, an Arduino Bluetooth module, propellers and a battery. The drone is flown using a smartphone on open-source software.

Ken Chew uses the same processors for his palm-sized drones as for the larger ones used to analyse the health of plantations, which allows the children to upgrade to more sophisticated models in the future.

The drone class is one of a series of programmes from 3D printer-building to woodworking classes held at MakerBay.

READ MORE: Crop-dusting drones may be next cash cow for China’s DJI as it trumpets release of Agras MG-1

MakerBay, which had its official opening in January, is one of a growing number of makerspaces around the world allowing members of the public to access equipment such as woodworking tools or 3D printers to prototype their ideas.

The former warehouse space in Yau Tong has a focus on sustainable products or projects that will help the world. The space also serves as a place to support innovation in Hong Kong, according to its general manager Fiona Ching.

WATCH: China’s top drone-maker DJI introducing the Agras MG-1 for crop spraying

“To make an economy like Hong Kong more innovative, you need everyone to work together, you need to create that culture,” said Ching.

“You can’t just say we have a lot of money from the government and we dump money in getting people to do start-ups.”

READ MORE: China restricts exports of ‘high performance’ drones as national security fears heighten

MakerBay welcomes entrepreneurs to base themselves from a desk or studio in the space or to visit to work on their prototypes.

A day pass costs HK$200 (US$25.60), or HK$750 for a full seven days, and makers can rent desks and studios from HK$2,500 and HK$6,000, respectively.

WATCH: Best drones of Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2016 in Las Vegas

MakerBay holds introduction classes for all its equipment. After completing these classes, users can operate the machinery independently.

In the workshop at the back of the MakerBay last month, Elias Adams was waiting patiently for a 3D printer to create a prototype of his fitness watch.

READ MORE: China rules on drones under way

Inspired by his father’s hand-me-down Fitbit, 13-year-old Adams has spent around three months designing his own wearable to track his sleeping patterns and number of steps taken.

But it isn’t just the equipment available at MakerBay that attracted the teenager to travel to Yau Tong.

WATCH: Dutch police use eagles to snatch drones mid-flight in case of threat

“You want to meet people who have the same ideas as you so you can work together,” Adams said. “Here you may meet some programmers or hardware engineers so then you can save freelancing costs.”

His father, Matthew Adams, who also grew up in Hong Kong, said he was pleased to see such a space available in the city.

READ MORE: Hong Kong’s best ever drone video? How stunning 10km chocolate delivery stunt took months to plan

“He’s very interested in design, and making things is a very hot subject,” said the older Adams.

“I would go in the summers to the United States and then you could do things like [woordworking], it wasn’t so high-tech, but now this is the norm.”

Elias is now looking for a developer to help build his app to display the data collected by the fitness tracker. He plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign for his idea in late summer.