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Robots with a Mission: 3D Printed Garbage Collectors Prepare to Descend on Beaches

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In 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, killing more than 15,000 people and injuring and/or displacing hundreds of thousands of others. The effects of the tsunami were felt on the other side of the world, too, as far away as Canada. Erin Kennedy noticed those effects one day while walking along the Toronto Island beach; plastic debris, carried all the way from Japan on the massive wave, littered the beach for miles.

Plastic trash is a well-known problem, especially in oceans and other bodies of water, but the large, unsightly pieces of garbage aren’t the biggest problem. The smaller, broken-down bits of plastic are much more insidious, because they’re easily ingested by wildlife and not so easily cleaned up. It would be impossible for a human picking up trash by hand to get to every small bit of garbage, but perhaps not so impossible for robots, thought Kennedy, a builder of open source robots who goes by the name “robotgrrl.”

Kennedy envisioned robot swarms, programmed to work together, descending upon beaches and scooping up trash. She founded Robot Missions, an organization that unites environmentalists with makers to develop beachcombing bots for cleanup endeavors.

“…I noticed that there’s a gap between makers and environmentalists when it comes to developing grassroots tech for the field,” said Kennedy. “You see, makers are super creative with limited resources and bring their tools. However, they sometimes do not see how to apply their skills to a problem. Environmentalists can give direction to the problems, and understand the deeper parts of it. Sometimes they can be skeptical of the technology, as they haven’t been a part of its development or had any input about it. If we are able to help both groups work together, then we will be able to implement the innovations into existing efforts faster.”

Robot swarms are being developed for everything from military missions to construction, and using them to clean up polluted beaches seems like an obvious idea. A cleanup mission would start with humans determining an area that needs to be cleaned, using either drones or satellite imagery, then setting up a “home base” near the site. That home base includes a digital command post that controls the multiple small robots, as well as serving as a return area where the robots can deposit the trash for sorting and bagging. The boundaries of the cleanup site would be determined by the robots’ operators, and software dictates a pattern in which the robots sweep across the beach, scooping up plastic and other trash.

Kennedy and Robot Missions developed a 3D printed, open-source robot that they named Bowie, with a design simple enough to be replicated relatively easily. The robot was designed specifically so that it could be 3D printed on a 10 cm build platform with a maximum print time of four hours per piece. Bowie consists of a horizontal platform with an attached arm, ending in a scoop similar to one you’d use to clean a cat’s litter box. The robot moves around on four sturdy wheels, capable of navigating uneven terrain, and scoops up small pieces of trash while sifting through sand. The trash is then dumped into a hopper mounted on the back.

Bowie isn’t a big robot – its dimensions are 38 x 37 x 36 cm, not including the arm, which extends out 70 cm. It weighs between 3 and 5 kg and is designed to pick up trash 10-55 mm in size, such as bottle caps and cigarette butts. Bowie has gone through several iterations, each a little more sophisticated than the last, and while the idea is for the robots to operate autonomously for at least part of each mission, operator control is expected to be necessary from time to time when the robots encounter obstacles. Kennedy is working on developing a tele-operation headband for easy control.

Kennedy raised CA $10,000 on Kickstarter to fund a series of field tests for the robot, and over the course of 2016 Bowie collected 2.75 kg of trash during those field tests. Robot Missions was also a finalist for the 2016 Hackaday Prize in the Citizen Science category. The 2017 Hackaday Prize is going on now, as more projects put technology to good use.

While Bowie hasn’t been 100% perfected yet, the field tests provided valuable insight, allowing the team to improve the electronics, software, and body of the robot. You can learn more about Robot Missions’ project on their Hackaday page here – where the team also references recycling options for recovered plastic – and see one of the robots navigating around a beach below:

Discuss in the 3D Printed Robots forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Hackaday / Images: Robot Missions]

 

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