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CityMaker Erin Kennedy, founder of Robot Missions.

CityMakers: Robot Missions empowers communities to apply low-cost robots for environmental challenges

By Nickie Shobeiry on May 23, 2018

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Nickie Shobeiry is Apt613’s correspondent at Synapcity, Ottawa non-profit for civic engagement, connecting people across diverse communities to share perspectives and create positive change.

Robot Missions is a grassroots group, empowering communities to apply low-cost robots for environmental challenges, such as shoreline cleanup.

Founder Erin Kennedy was the recent recipient of the 100th Awesome Ottawa grant. Not long after, Robot Missions released its Kickstarter: Robot Missions Municipal Trials.

Below, Nickie Shobeiry talks to Erin about all her incredible achievements so far.

What’s the goal of your Kickstarter?

Our goal is to raise $13,500 in order to complete all the milestones that we have to fit for the Municipal Trials. We’re bringing three of our robots onto Westboro Beach in order for the robots to clean up the shoreline. At the very end of the summer, it’ll culminate in a final demo to some City of Ottawa representatives. From now until then, we’ll be doing public field tests, so communities can join while we have a team of volunteers working on improving the software development for the robots.

What inspired your idea for beach-cleaning robots in the first place?

I was walking along the beach and saw a pile of trash at my feet – all this tiny debris, fragments of plastic, pieces of styrofoam. It would have taken way too long to pick it up by hand. I figured, why not try to make some robots to make it more efficient to clean up? That way, we can parallelize the effort, because it’s a global challenge. That also inspired the reason that the robots are 3D printed. This way people can replicate it in their own makerspace and Fab Labs, and bring it to their own local beaches to clean up.

What’s the design process like?

It started with a robot prototype. We took observations and lessons learnt from every single field test and culminated it into iterative design process, improving the next thing that needed to be fixed. We’ve been on 23 field tests so far on Toronto and Ottawa beaches. In fact, our last one in Ottawa was back in September – councillor Jeff Leiper joined, and we had 40 participants. That was a preview of what’s going to be like for the upcoming summer!

What’s the community’s reaction been like?

It’s been largely enthusiastic; they like how it combines technology and engineering with the environmental. One of the cool things about it is that it puts the robots in places where you wouldn’t expect a robot to be – like on the beach! That means that that more youth who may not have necessarily been exposed to technology and engineering now have the chance to be able to. What we see a lot of the time is that kids – especially young women and young girls – really enjoy operating the robots, learning more about it. It’s an excellent opportunity for that.

One of the cool things about it is that it puts the robots in places where you wouldn’t expect a robot to be – like on the beach! That means that that more youth who may not have necessarily been exposed to technology and engineering now have the chance to be able to.

What’s it like to see young women interacting with it?

It’s heartwarming, knowing you might inspire another person to go into tech is a great feeling. Just the other day we were demo-ing at an event and someone told me their 10-year old daughter had heard about me, and they want to be an inventor too. I thought, wow, this is great! Hopefully they’ll be at the beach to see the robots.

What are some challenges you face as an inventor?

It’s fun being an inventor because you get to bring something from your mind into reality – and then there’s this other aspect of getting everyone on-board to implement it into the real world.

There’s a lot of challenges with getting traction for your idea, and the resources necessary to execute. The City of Ottawa deciding to help with this project is a huge partnership. Of course in terms of other resources, we’re looking for volunteers to help with the baby robot testing. For resources and finances, we’ve launched a Kickstarter, we won the Awesome Ottawa award, and both of these are going towards funding for a program with the Ontario Centres of Excellence [BM I3 Customer Demonstration Program].

Who makes up your team?

Right now, it’s a few volunteers from the University of Ottawa: they came from a class where we used Robot Missions as a platform for them to take their first year knowledge and build on top of it to introduce new modules. So for example, they built seed dispensers and automatic water sampler – all these things. It demonstrates they’re firstly really compelled by Robot Missions’ vision, and secondly, they see robots as a platform to build onto for more environmental challenges.

What advice do you have to other CityMakers?

Getting out there, observing and listening, and then recommending a change that could happen – and then trying to make it happen! The whole city has really thoughtful and committed citizens. You’re bound to find someone who’ll help out.


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