Erin ‘RobotGrrl’ Kennedy Unifying Makers, Environmentalists

A new project called “Robot Missions” wants to collect debris from shorelines using robots that are faster and can reach remote locations.

Photo Caption: Erin "RobotGrrl" Kennedy (center) and the Robot Missions team are building robots that clean up debris near shorelines. (Photo Credit: Robot Missions)

Toronto resident Erin “RobotGrrl” Kennedy, though in her early 20s, has been making robots for years. In an interesting twist of fate, she started her robotics career after a sports injury kept her sidelined for the entire summer. To keep herself entertained, she got a LEGO Mindstorms RCX kit and, according to her, has “been hooked since!”

LEGO blocks, though they can provide hours of entertainment, can only take you so far. She eventually graduated to other projects, such as making Styrobots, which are Styrofoam cups modified to slide around on a table, and her RoboBrrd, a fun robotic pet that you can build for yourself.

RoboBrrd was brought to the masses through a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, but it’s not the only time Kennedy has tried to source funds this way. Styrobots were sold to raise funds for a three week artificial intelligence youth program at Stanford, and she currently has a fan funding campaign through Patreon.

Rounding out her crowdfunding exploits, she also did an Indiegogo campaign for her Automatic Food Slicer Robot (ASFR) that you can see in the video below. This less successful idea was that a robot controlled by a touch-sensitive panel could cut your food. According to her, “it proved that no one needed a gesture controlled robot that can drive along a table with a sharp knife to cut food.”

Robots for the Environment

Taking lessons she’s learned from her previous robot builds and crowdfunding campaigns, she is now working on a new robotics idea designed to help the environment called “Robot Missions.” Kennedy was inspired to take on this mission after seeing a large amount of debris on an otherwise very nice beach on Toronto Island.

Despite this noble goal, she knew that “Robot Missions would be a challenging campaign, and it is proving to be just that.” She adds that, besides the aspect of obtaining funding, one needs to consider “what doors are open just because you are running a crowdfunding campaign.”

The first “robot mission” takes the form of a robot to clear debris from shorelines. The prototype, a little rover with four wheels and an arm to pick up trash, can be seen in the video below, being tested with several gripper designs. Its off-road capability appears to be quite robust, able to traverse different environments as needed.

To get to the design seen in the video, the rover was rapidly iterated using 3D printing and CAD. The next version will be slightly bigger, and will feature a hopper to hold debris. Currently it uses a Teensy board and an Arduino, and is controlled wirelessly by a Wii Nunchuck. The eventual goal is to have it operate semi-autonomously. At this point a human operator is still planned in order to oversee things so it doesn’t harm nature.

Robot Missions, according to Kennedy, is meant to “enable makers and environmentalists to collaborate with each other to improve the environment.” This is accomplished by “developing the technology through rapid prototyping, and testing it in the field. Environmentalists shouldn’t think that technology is something that harms nature or is developed as a black box, and makers need to understand the problem in order to apply their skills.”

In my own experience, it seems that when someone with an engineering or DIY mindset collaborates with someone with different experiences - musical talent, for example - really neat things get made. Whether you’re interacting with other people, or simply working by yourself, it’s good to step back once in a while and consider how someone else might approach a problem. Better yet, get someone else to help. Sometimes you can end up with something truly innovative!

About the Author

Jeremy S. Cook · Jeremy is an engineer with 10 years experience and has a BSME from Clemson University. A lifelong maker and experimenter, he now writes about technology and builds anything that comes into his mind!
Contact Jeremy S. Cook:  ·  View More by Jeremy S. Cook.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter.


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