Walking down South Boulder Avenue, you’ll instantly recognize something different in downtown Russellville. There’s a little storefront decorated with a dozen brightly colored potted plants, wind streamers, and a bright blue sign that says simply “create.” Walk inside and you’ll be greeted by a cozy space with large meeting tables. In the back, scattered projects, breadboards, and circuits lay about, with a white board full of various equations and plans. It’s messy but in a good way. The items laying around would inspire any tinkerer — solar panels, circuit boards, a 3D printed prosthetic hand, and an oscilloscope are just a few examples. This is Russellville’s first makerspace.
Russellville needs more people like Sergio Picado and his wife, Cindy. They’re genuine, warm, and friendly with a mission to change the way our community solves problems. Together, they run Maanavta Research Organization, a nonprofit that aims to better the world through science and technology education and facilitation. Through their organization, they offer classes to inform people about emerging technologies and furnish a makerspace to provide the community with a place to meet and create.
A makerspace is an area in which people can come together, collaborate, learn, and share. They typically focus on computing and technology, but cater to other disciplines like woodworking or engineering. “We gather together tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, food artisans, hobbyists, engineers, science organizations, artists, and students. These teachers and students come together to make their creations and share their knowledge with each other,” Sergio says, “We teach so that we can help our community glimpse the future and find the inspiration to become creators.”
These lofty goals may seem unachievable to most, but Sergio and Cindy have the experience to back up their words. Maanavta is an offshoot of Innovative Development, a Russellville engineering firm that designs products for companies all over the world. They’ve helped design all sorts of gadgets, from the controller on McDonald’s fryers, to a monitor that can alert veterinarians when a horse goes into labor. They’re problem solvers that work with companies large and small, and this variety keeps them on the cutting edge of technology.
That is to say, they have the experience and knowledge to make an organization like this happen. “We had all this wonderful knowledge, all this wonderful experience, and all this wonderful equipment. We decided to open it up to the community,” Sergio says.
Innovative Development has been in business for 28 years but only recently moved to Arkansas. “We were based in Connecticut for years, but when my partner retired, we decided to move to Russellville.” The Picados are Arkansas natives, so the move was like a homecoming for them.
“The main thing we offer is education to help the community,” Sergio says, “People need to prepare themselves for the areas of technology that will be required.” He explains that without embracing new technologies, many in our community will soon be left without a job. “If these classes help you go down the path of an engineer or technician, you’ll have a job waiting for you. In fact, we (at Innovative Development) cannot find enough engineers. We often have to hire out of state.”
Maanavta offers classes on everything from amateur radio to solar technology, and programming to organic gardening — anything to ignite that creative spark within an individual. Most of these classes are either taught by the Picados or by an engineer from Innovative Technologies, although they bring in the occasional guest speaker. In addition, Maanavta’s classes are inexpensive compared to similar programs. They typically cost $45 and run for two to three weeks. They don’t set an age limit on their programs either. “We had an eight year old take our programming course,” says Sergio, “She turned out to be one of our best students.” He says that children automatically take to technology. It becomes second nature to them.
“Arkansas Tech has all of these wonderful designers and engineers, but most of them end up leaving the town or state after they graduate. The most appealing jobs simply aren’t here,” says Sergio. He hopes that by providing a makerspace, education, and a helping hand, new technology businesses will start springing up in the area. “When new graduates leave, it splits families and hurts the local economy. Everybody loses,“ says Sergio. “Arkansas as a whole is sort of a desert for new technologies. We hope to change that.”
One area Maanavta is especially interested in is solar power. “Here in the next four to six years, the solar industry is going to explode,” says Sergio. According to the Picados, there’s no reason that Pope County could not be the solar power capital of Arkansas. They would like to position the community to take advantage of solar energy. “We’ve got smart people here, we have politicians that see the writing on the wall, and it’s just a matter of bringing these people together.”
“If we can get a good company together, everybody wins,” says Sergio. His ideals aren’t so far-fetched. Solar power is rapidly making gains in the consumer market, and in some places, even beats traditional power generation methods like coal in cost per watt. Just seven years ago, solar power had an average cost of $4.46 per watt. Now prices are approaching the $1 mark. Some companies, like Elon Musk’s SolarCity, even promise a cost of $0.55 a watt for their solar panels. The price of solar power, on average, is cheaper than the cost of coal energy. While the price of coal remains at a steady $95 – 100 per Megawatt hour, solar is at $73 per Megawatt hour and dropping. If solar prices continue to drop, they will soon outpace even cheaper options like natural gas and wind, which average $55 per Megawatt hour.
“I know people who don’t pay to drive their cars. They plug them into a solar power system at their home and drive them for free,” says Sergio.
To help prepare the community for this change in our energy sources, Maanavta holds a one-day solar class that explains how to set up a small solar power system for residential use. They cover energy need calculations, panel-area estimates, battery banks, and other less apparent concepts like how to perform proper battery maintenance, where to place your panels, and how to buy a control system. These classes are open to anyone, although they do get a little technical when concepts like wattage, voltage, and current come up. “We won’t get too advanced, but we want to make sure you know how the system works,” he explains.
Maanavta is a Hindi word that means “humanity” and is a good way to sum up the organization’s goals. In addition to the makerspace and classes, Maanavta focuses on humanitarian projects. When the earthquakes in Nepal hit back in 2015, Sergio began work on a device that is able to detect survivors under the rubble. He used a product developed by Innovative Developments and altered it to be used in emergency situations. “We had developed a product to find water leaks in pipes,” Sergio says, “When a water line breaks, companies need to pinpoint the leak to know where to dig.” He says that they were easily able to tweak the machine to detect survivors under the rubble. Another machine Sergio was able to demonstrate was a lighting solution for areas without reliable electricity. The device is a hanging led light powered by the weight of rocks. You place rocks in a bag near the light and as gravity pulls them down, a generator makes enough electricity to power the light. This light is on display in the makerspace.
“We also designed a briefcase that holds everything a doctor requires for medical diagnostics in the field, powered by solar, of course,” says Sergio. Currently, the team is planning a device that uses solar energy to draw water from the air, much like a dehumidifier. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 10 people still do not have access to clean water.
Projects like these improve quality of life for the human race and our community. In this way, I say that the world needs more people like Cindy and Sergio Picado.
If you would like more information on classes, Maanavta, and the makerspace, be sure to visit the Maanavta Research Organization’s Facebook page or www.maanavta.org