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SnotBot

Update from Olin College: Spring Semester, Snow, and SnotBot

By | Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

If you haven’t yet heard about SnotBot, it has been an ongoing partner project with Ocean Alliance and Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA. The goal – to create a robotic research assistant for field research voyages that can safely and efficiently collect whale blow – has been being tackled by several groups of research students over the last year. The fleet, a set of small multirotor drones affectionately named SnotBots, are equipped with various sensors in order to run human-program missions or ‘think’ for themselves during autonomous missions.

Throughout the Fall Semester, the SnotBot team at Olin College was working on getting a new team up to speed and setting up for this semester. We spent those twelve weeks gathering documentation sources, writing papers, downloading new software, redesigning SnotBot landers, outfitting SnotShot with sensors- the works!

Now, the team is in a place to hit the ground running this semester with the following goals in mind:

  • Develop reliable remote control systems (so a human pilot may override the autonomy at any time)
  • Develop reliable point-to-point mission navigation (so a SnotBot can be told where to go, and actually get there to collect data)
  • Develop a first round of visual navigation systems (so a SnotBot can look around and determine what is something interesting to navigate to)
  • Create a waterproof gimbal housing
  • Create a launcher/lander mechanism (so when launching from or landing on a boat, the SnotBot can reliably/accurately take off and land without human assistance)

Since the start of the semester, the team has managed to set up a new ground control station, which can be used on any laptop running a Windows Operating system, with a joystick controller – now flying the drones will be a lot like flying in a simulator, or flying a starship in a video game. The basic planner, Mission Planner by Ardupilot, will take in the data from the SnotBot brain, and send back control signals during flight. The team can write their own missions, control signals, or commands within the program – or for more control and accuracy, in self-authored Python scripts. Benchtop tests of a program to launch the SnotBot, hover, and land are promising.

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Views of our benchtop test location, and our new ground control station running Mission Planner by Ardupilot, our self-authored Python scripts, and interfacing with a normal joystick controller.

 

 

As the snow fell in New England, the team received two new software members who will be working on computer vision tasks, and communications protocol. The computer vision team has already been able to use computer packages to identify QR codes, which we will use as fiducials – signposts for the SnotBot – during point-to-point navigation tests using the cameras mounted to the chassis.

 

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Team member Jay (‘17) holds up a QR code for identification as Victoria (‘16) snaps a quick photo. The lines you see are tracking matching keypoints on the QR code. These will later be used to help identify the angle, distance, and orientation to the fiducials on the ground during flights.

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To protect those cameras, our mechanical team is wrapping up design work from last semester on a waterproof gimble mount, that could be used on any general chassis with small modification. Right now, the gimbal is ready for some dunk tests, and SnotBot Gray is up for modification. New legs will be reprinted for Gray to accommodate for the size of the new gimbal housing.

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The ‘Bubble’ that will protect the cameras on future SnotBots.

 

As you look forward to the next weeks, expect some videos of autonomous test flights, flyovers with our SnotShot, new sensors, new SnotBot fleet members, and more!

SnotBot on Discovery Channel’s “Daily Planet”

By | FEB15, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

Our drone for whale research affectionately called “SnotBot,” created in collaboration with our partners at Olin College of Engineering, was recently featured on the Discovery Channel series “Daily Planet.” In the segment Iain Kerr and our Robotics Team join Olin College robotics students with Dr. Andrew Bennett at our headquarters in Gloucester, MA to demonstrate how drones can help us understand what human activities cause whales stresses by allowing us to sample mucus containing stress hormones (plus viruses, bacteria and DNA) from their exhalations without disturbing the animal:

Robotics For Kids and Whales

By | FEB15, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

One of the initiatives that Ocean Alliance has been pushing hard on over the last year is the development of a robotics program. When our organization was founded in the 1970s most people believed you had to kill whales to learn about them. Our founder, Dr. Roger Payne, was a pioneer in developing benign research tools–techniques that can be used to collect data without killing the animals. Read More

Patrick Stewart Supports SnotBot

By | nov14, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

When Ocean Alliance started in the whale conservation business in the 1970s, one of our primary goals was to show that you didn’t have to kill a whale to learn about it. What we were doing then was developing benign research tools and techniques. I like to think of OA as being a pathfinder organization. We are a small and agile organization that can respond quickly to emerging challenges and issues. Read More

Can Drones Help Save Whales?

By | Gulf of Mexico, Ocean Alliance News, Operation Toxic Gulf, Technology | No Comments

I am writing this blog from the RV Odyssey 120 nautical miles out in the Gulf of Mexico on the final leg of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Most of the day we are tracking whales acoustically (oh for a drone to help us find whales), but for part of every day on this leg we are conducting ship trials (at sea launch and recovery exercises) on a variety of drones. Read More

New Robotics Lab Coming to the Paint Factory

By | jun14, Ocean Alliance News, Paint Factory Headquarters, Technology | No Comments

When we first started talking with Olin College of Engineering in 2010 about a collaboration, they were very interested in Ocean Alliance providing their students with real world (or applied) challenges. A rapidly growing part of our oceanographic research program is the field of robotics, particularly as it applies to developing benign research techniques (those that cause no harm). SailBot, SnotShot and SnotBot are three good examples. As Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr has spoken at different schools and events he has noticed a lot of interest in this field of robotics, so from our work with Olin and this interest came the idea to build the Applied Robotics Research Laboratory and Club at the Paint Factory, our headquarters in Gloucester, MA. Read More

SnotBot and SnotShot Are Coming to Gloucester Harbor

By | Education, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

This June we will be moving ahead with SnotBot and SnotShot trials in Gloucester Harbor with our partners at Olin College of Engineering. SnotShot is a device we’ve built to simulate whale blows, SnotBot is a machine that will collect these exhalations looking for viruses, bacteria, DNA and hormones.

In preparation for the trial, Iain Kerr and John Graham recently made a trip to Olin to work with the students of Dr. Andrew Bennett. We sat down as a team to talk about how we could best fine tune the instruments to represent all that we might encounter when we work with wild animals. For example, the SnotShot will sit in a small kayak with a hydrophone in the water to record any propeller noise, a small camera with a microphone to record airborne noise and video the drone approach, a vertical anemometer to check ambient maximum wind speed, and a horizontal anemometer to check maximum vertical wind speed from the drone. Before taking the drones out students at Olin will be flying over a pressure plate to get accurate measurements of downwash created by the drone.

Andrew Bennett and John Graham in front of 3-D printers at work

Andrew Bennett and John Graham in front of 3-D printers at work

The purpose here is not just to do trial flights and collect simulated whale blow data, but also to collect all the info we can about what a whale might hear, see and feel when approached by a drone.

When we move on to animal encounters we will bring the SnotShot with us, as in this type of experiment you always need control data. We need to be able to compare what’s in the water with what’s in the whale blow since a large part of the whale blow is seawater.

Thanks to the students of Olin for all of your hard work—we look forward to seeing you in Gloucester!

 

Meet SnotShot 3.0

By | apr14, Education, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

 

Iain Kerr and Andrew Bennett at Olin College

Iain Kerr and Andrew Bennett at Olin College

When you develop any technology to work with wildlife, particularly endangered species such as marine mammals, you want to get all of your prototypes, testing, and dry runs completed before you go out into the field. As we continue to develop our drone, SnotBot, that will be used to collect Exhaled Breath Condensate (EBC or whale blows) looking for viruses, bacteria, DNA, and hormones, we needed a machine that could simulate a whale blow so we could test all aspects of SnotBot including EBC collection protocols, whale approach and effect protocols, and our systems for collecting and bringing back EBC. Read More

An Update On Our Robotics Program with Olin College

By | feb14, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

Iain Kerr and Drew BennettOcean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr and team members Dan Albani and John Graham made another visit to Dr. Drew Bennett at  Olin College of Engineering on Monday. We are pushing hard to make our headquarters, the Paint Factory in Gloucester, MA, into a fully functioning oceanographic research center this year and to do that we need a laboratory and docks. The laboratory will be multi-use, but the lead initiative is a robotics lab. This will be a space that is not only used by Ocean Alliance and Olin College for our marine projects, but a space that we hope will be used by school groups and others who are interested in applied engineering solutions. [Pictured – Iain Kerr and Drew Bennett. The yellow copter is a dedicated film platform that we plan to use to document animal interactions with other drones]

Olin College Robotics LabFor the OA team, going to Olin is a bit like going to a giant toy factory. The equipment they have is remarkable — not only the finished products such as multicopters and airplanes but also the technology that they use such as 3D printers and fine-scale milling machines. We walk through their spaces and they advise us on what worked well for them and what did not. We had a long planning session on the next stages for our SnotBot Program (a small drone that will be used to collect physical samples of whale blows). It should be an exciting year for this partnership.

 

 

 

[Below] Iain Kerr and Olin students Mike and Silas  in front of a small milling machine. A drone can be seen on the computer screen and parts can be made on the milling machine. The two black and silver machines in the background are 3-D printers

Iain Kerr with Olin College robotics students

Dr. Bennett and his students showing Iain a hexacopter (a five engine drone)

Dr. Drew Bennett with Iain Kerr and students