Avocado-Shaped Robot Makes Its Way Through The Rainforest

When you think of a robot getting around, you probably think of something on wheels or tracks. Maybe you think about a bipedal walking robot, more common in science fiction than our daily lives. In any case, researchers went way outside the norm when they built an avocado-shaped robot for exploring the rainforest.

The robot is the work of doctoral students at ETH Zurich, working with the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape research. The design is optimized for navigating the canopy of the rainforest, where a lot of the action is. Traditional methods of locomotion are largely useless up high in the trees, so another method was needed.

The avocado robot is instead tethered to a cable which is affixed to a high branch on a tree, or even potentially a drone flying above. The robot then uses a winch to move up and down as needed.  A pair of ducted fans built into the body provide the thrust necessary to rotate and pivot around branches or other obstacles as it descends. It also packs a camera onboard to help it navigate the environment autonomously.

It’s an oddball design, but it’s easy to see how this design makes sense for navigating the difficult environment of a dense forest canopy. Sometimes, intractable problems require creative solutions. Continue reading “Avocado-Shaped Robot Makes Its Way Through The Rainforest”

Exploring Tropical Rainforest Stratification Using Space-Based LiDAR

GEDI is deployed on the the Japanese Experiment Module – Exposed Facility (JEM-EF). The highlighted box shows the location of GEDI on the JEM-EF.
GEDI is deployed on the the Japanese Experiment Module – Exposed Facility (JEM-EF). The highlighted box shows the location of GEDI on the JEM-EF.

Even though it may seem like we have already explored every single square centimeter of the Earth, there are still many areas that are practically unmapped. These areas include the bottom of the Earth’s oceans, but also the canopy of the planet’s rainforests. Rather having herds of explorers clamber around in the upper reaches of these forests to take measurements, researchers decided to use LiDAR to create a 3D map of these forests (press release).

The resulting GEDI (Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation) NASA project includes a triple-laser-based LiDAR system that was launched to the International Space Station in late 2018 by CRS-16 where it has fulfilled its two-year mission which began in March of 2019. Included in the parameters recorded this way are surface topography, canopy height metrics, canopy cover metrics and vertical structure metrics.

Originally, the LiDAR scanner was supposed to be decommissioned by stuffing it into the trunk of a Dragon craft before its deorbit, but after NASA found a way to scoot the scanner over to make way for a DOD payload, the project looks to resume scanning the Earth’s forests next year, where it can safely remain until the ISS is deorbited in 2031. Courtesy of the ISS’s continuous orbiting of the Earth, it’ll enable daily monitoring of its rainforests in particular, which gives us invaluable information about the ecosystems they harbor, as well as whether they’re thriving or not.

Hopefully after its hibernation period the orbital LiDAR scanner will be back in action, as the instrument is subjected to quite severe temperature changes in its storage location. Regardless, putting LiDAR scanners in orbit has to be one of those amazing ideas to help us keep track of such simple things as measuring the height of trees and density of foliage.

Hackaday Prize 2022: Upcycling Acrylic Scraps

Living and working in a remote rain forest may sound idyllic to those currently stuck in bland suburbia, and to be sure it does have plenty of perks. One of the downsides, though, is getting new materials and equipment to that remote location. For that reason, [Digital Naturalism Laboratories], also known as [Dinalab], has to reuse or recycle as much as they can, including their scraps of acrylic leftover from their laser cutter.

The process might seem straightforward, but getting it to actually work and not burn the acrylic took more than a few tries. Acrylic isn’t as thermoplastic as other plastics so it is much harder to work with, and it took some refining of the process. But once the details were ironed out, essentially the acrylic scraps are gently heated between two steel plates (they use a sandwich press) and then squeezed with a jack until they stick back together in one cohesive sheet. The key to this process is to heat it and press it for a long time, typically a half hour or more.

With this process finally sorted, [Dinalab] can make much more use of their available resources thanks to recycling a material that most of us would end up tossing out. It also helps to keep waste out of the landfill that would otherwise exist in the environment indefinitely. And, if this seems familiar to you, it’s because this same lab has already perfected methods to recycle other types of plastic as well.

Continue reading “Hackaday Prize 2022: Upcycling Acrylic Scraps”

The Hackaday Prize: Growing Your Own Soil

When a rainforest is clearcut for agricultural use, we only see the surface problems: fewer trees, destruction of plant and animal habitats, and countless other negative effects on the environment. A lurking problem, however, is that the soil is often non-ideal for farming. When the soil is exhausted, the farmers move further into the rainforest and repeat the process.

In the Amazon, however, there are pockets of man-made soil that are incredibly nutrient-dense. Figuring out how to make this soil, known as Terra Preta, on a massive scale would limit the amount of forest destruction by providing farmers a soil with more longevity which will, in turn, limit the encroachment on the rainforest. That’s the goal of this Hackaday Prize entry by [Leonardo Zuniga]: a pyrolysis chemical reactor that can make this soil by turning organic matter into a type of charcoal that can be incorporated into the soil to make Terra Preta.

As a bonus to making this nutrient-dense soil on a massive scale, this reactor also generates usable energy as a byproduct of processing organic waste, which goes several steps beyond simple soil enrichment. If successful and scalable, this project could result in more efficient farming techniques, greater yields, and, best of all, less damage to the environment and less impact on the rainforests.