Rovers to the Rescue: Robot Missions Tackles Trash

Everyone knows plastic trash is a problem with junk filling up landfills and scattering beaches. It’s worse because rather than dissolving completely, plastic breaks down into smaller chunks of plastic, small enough to be ingested by birds and fish, loading them up with indigestible gutfill. Natural disasters compound the trash problem; debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami washed ashore on Vancouver Island in the months that followed.

Erin Kennedy was walking along Toronto Island beach and noticed the line of plastic trash that extended as far as the eye could see. As an open source robot builder, her first inclination was to use robots to clean up the mess. A large number of small robots following automated routines might be able to clear a beach faster and more efficiently than a person walking around with a stick and a trash bag.

Erin founded Robot Missions to explore this possibility, with the goal of uniting open-source “makers” — along with their knowledge of technology — with environmentalists who have a clearer understanding of what needs to be done to protect the Earth. It was a finalist in the Citizen Science category for the 2016 Hackaday Prize, and would fit very nicely in this year’s Wheels, Wings, and Walkers challenge which closes entries in a week.

Join me after the break for a look at where Robot Missions came from, and what Erin has in store for the future of the program.

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Flocking behavior using Mindstorm robots


Do you ever wonder why geese always fly together in a V-shape? We’re not asking about the fact that it makes the work load much less for all but the lead goose. We mean how is it that all geese know to form up like this? It’s is the act of flocking, and it’s long been a subject of fascination when it comes to robotics. [Scott Snowden] researched the topic while working on his degree a few years ago. Above you can see the demonstration of the behavior using LEGO Mindstorm robots. That’s certainly interesting and you’ll want to check out the video after the break. But his offering doesn’t end with the demo. He also posted a huge article about his work that will provide days of fascinating reading.

We can’t begin to scratch the surface of all that he covers, but we can give you a quick primer on his Mindstorm (NXT) setup. He uses these three bots along with a central brick (the computer part of the NXT hardware) which communicates with them. This lets him use a wide range of powerful tools like MatLab and Processing to recognize each robot with a top-down camera, passing it data based on info harvested with computer vision. From there it’s a wild ride of modeling the behavior as a set of algorithms.

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Treasure trove of swarm robotics research


The screen capture above shows a group of swarm robots working together to move the blue box from the left side of the frame over to the right. It’s just one of many demonstrations shown in the video clip after the break. The clip is a quick sampling of the many swarm robotics research projects going on at the University of Sheffield’s Natural Robotics Lab.

The main focus for all of the research is to see what can be accomplished by getting a large group of relatively simple machines to work together. Each device has a microcontroller brain, camera, accelerometer, proximity sensors, and a microphone. By mixing and matching the use of available components they can test different concepts which will be useful in creating utility robot swarms for real-world tasks. The video shows off the robots grouping themselves by like characteristic, a test called segregation (the purpose of this didn’t resonate with us), and group tasks like moving that box. The nice thing is that a series of white papers is available at the post linked above (click on the PDF icon) so that you may dig deeper if these projects are of interest to you.

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Dog Pod Grid one step closer to reality

What’s better than one amazingly acrobatic quadcopter? How about a swarm of acrobatic micro-quadcopters? It’s not a rhetorical question, but an experimental reality. A team at the University of Pennsylvania are showing off their latest round of hovering robots which can move in formation and alter their orientation as a swarm.

You may remember us salivating over the unbelievable stunts the team pulled off with a single ‘copter back in 2010. That device needed a sophisticated camera installation to give provide feedback, and this uses the same framework. But we don’t that detracts from the achievement; it’s simply a future hurdle for the project.

The video after the break shows some of the stunts the slew of whirring devices are capable of. Watching them move as a grid, and even landing simultaneously, we can’t help but think of the Dog Pod Grid from Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age. It was used as a protection system, keeping unwanted flying intruders out. Doesn’t sound so far-fetched any more, does it?

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Robots listen only to the leader when building a roving quadcopter landing pad

Swarm robotics is really starting to produce some interesting results. This image is from the video embedded after the break that show a group of five robots creating a landing platform for a quadrotor helicopter. The four that actually make up the platform are not in contact with each other, but instead following commands from the leader. We’re impressed by the helicopter’s ability to target and land on the moving platform. Takeoff appears to be another issue, as the platform bots stop moving until the quadcopter is airborne again.

These robots are part of a Graduate project at Georgia Tech. [Ted Macdonald] has been working along with others to implement an organizational algorithm that guides the swarm. The method requires that the robots have an overview of the location of all others in the swarm. This is done with high-speed cameras like we’ve seen in other robotic control projects. But that doesn’t discourage us. If you already have a flying robot as part of the swarm, you might as well add a few more to serve as the eyes in the sky.

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Harry Potter Marauders map realized


After reading about cheap wireless for microcontrollers, [Leigh] left a comment about his Marauders map. Much like the Harry Potter version, whoever holds the ‘map’ is able to see the location of the ‘marauders’ within certain bounds. Unlike the magical version however, each person being tracked needs to hold a PICAXE 08M, GPS, and 433.92MHz transmitter: while the map needs a computer running his Python script and a receiver of the same frequency. It has the potential for locating people, but we feel it might be better off in a swarm robotics setup.