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Bowie the robot is coming to Westboro Beach

By Anne Boys-Hope –

The robots are coming… to clean the beach. Friendly and hardworking, these robots are destined for something great: to help conquer the world’s shoreline pollution problem and engage the community in science and technology.

Erin Kennedy (aka RobotGrrl), Ottawa-based inventor and founder of Robot Missions, is deploying three robots to Westboro Beach this summer.

Erin Kennedy (aka RobotGrrl), Ottawa-based inventor and founder of Robot Missions, is deploying three robots to Westboro Beach this summer. Photo by Andrea Tomkins

“One of the sweet parts about this is that we are bringing the robots to places where people wouldn’t expect robots,” says Erin. “What that means is that people, especially kids, will be exposed to science, technology, engineering and math [STEM] in a place where they may be more comfortable asking questions.”

Erin designed the beach-combing robot, and named it Bowie as a tribute to the late, great David Bowie. (Erin’s favourite David Bowie song is Heroes, the perfect theme for Robot Missions.)

Bowie looks like a small, colourful photocopier on four wheels. It scoops up small non-natural debris – cigarette butts, disposable cutlery, bottle caps, and bits of plastic–with its front arm and drops the trash into a small container mounted on its back.

Bowie is designed to be easy to use and to be replicated: the robot is light-weight, cost-effective and made on a 3-D printer.
It’s not surprising that “helping the planet with robots” is the mission of Erin’s social enterprise, Robot Missions.

“I got started on this after I saw a pile of trash on a beach. I looked across the coastline and saw it was more than a tiny pile. It was a trail extending along the entire coastline,” explains Erin. “I thought – we have to clean this up and it’s going to take way too much time. Why not build a robot that can make it go faster and log environmental sensor data at the same time? And bring together environmentalists and technologists to combine both skill sets?”

Robot Missions has a long list of supporters in Ottawa and beyond, including the City of Ottawa, Kitchissippi Ward, NCC, Invest Ottawa, Awesome Ottawa, Ontario Centres of Excellence, IBM, and more. MadeMill, the makerspace at Innovation Centre Bayview Yards, is providing a home base.

You’ll find Erin and her team testing the robots at the beach most mornings from June to August.

“We chose Westboro Beach because the community engagement is fantastic,” says Erin, who conducted a robot trial here last fall. “This is a really cool activity for the community to test our technology as we develop it to the stage where we are able to collect the tiny trash autonomously.”

That means equipping Bowie with visual recognition software that will allow it to identify and collect litter without the help of a human operator.

To achieve this, Erin is collaborating with the University of Ottawa. “We feed as much visual data, pictures of trash that we want it to pick up, so that Bowie will know only to pick up these pieces and leave the other things behind,” says Cailey Petrenko, an electrical and software engineering student.

Erin is looking for volunteers to be part of the Robot Missions team. Anyone can sign up to be a Robo-Wrangler and take part in the robot trials, or just drop by the beach on Saturday mornings to meet Erin and her robots on the beach. You can support the mission by making a donation to a Kickstarter campaign, which ends June 11.

Westboro Beach is just the beginning. Erin hopes to see one robot in every Ontario park by 2030: “Since they’re multipurpose we can see them taking on different types of roles, more than just shoreline clean up.”

“Pollution has no business in our natural spaces,” says Erin. “We made this problem, now we need to make a way to fix it.” For info and a link to the Kickstarter campaign, go to robotmissions.org. Find field test dates and times posted @RobotMissions on Twitter and Facebook.

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