Journal of Open Hardware Interview Series: Andrew Pelling in coversation with Erin “RobotGrrl” Kennedy

Journal of Open Hardware editor Andrew Pelling had a chance to sit down and chat with Erin “RobotGrrl” Kennedy. Erin is a robot maker and the founder of Robot Missions, an organization that empowers communities to embark on missions aimed at helping our planet using robots. She designed and developed a robot to collect shoreline debris, replicable anywhere with a 3D printer. Kennedy studied digital fabrication at the Fab Academy, and worked with a global team at MIT on a forty-eight-hour challenge during Fab11 to build a fully functional submarine. A former fellow in social innovation at the MaRS Discovery District’s Studio Y, Erin has been recognised as a finalist in the Lieutenant Governor’s Visionary Prize (Ontario), and her previous robotic work has been featured in Forbes, Wired, and IEEE Spectrum and on the Discovery Channel.

AP: I first came across your work because I was looking for some sample code to get my Arduino to talk to Twitter and I found a tutorial on your website. At that time I really just knew you as RobotGrrl and I think we met in person for the first time at Maker Faire. It was then that I learned your real name was Erin Kennedy. So, since then I’ve always been curious about how you think about yourself. Do you think yourself as RobotGrrl, or as Erin, or is there a difference?

Erin Kennedy: Cool! In terms of fun robotics projects, I definitely identity as RobotGrrl. For the professional realm, I usually identify as Erin Kennedy. For the entrepreneurial pursuits, such as Robot Missions, I feel there is a combination of both of them, so it’s usually Erin “RobotGrrl” Kennedy.

Erin with two Bowie robots at Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, Canada. July 2017. Credit: David Kavanagh, licensed under CC-BY 4.0

AP: Let’s talk about Robot Missions, I guess that’s your biggest project right now? Can you tell us about it?

Erin: Yes, it is the biggest project right now! Robot Missions is all about empowering communities to embark on missions facing our environment with the help of robots. We’ve developed a robot platform that’s focused on environmental cleanup, restoration and observation. Our first prototype is tackling mission number one, shoreline cleanup. The robot, its nickname is Bowie, is about the size of a small dog. It’s comprised all 3D printed pieces that get assembled together. The robot picks up trash on the beach, and deposit it inside of a container with a mechanised lid. Once full, the container can tilt to empty out.

The non-natural debris we’re focusing on collecting with the robot are the “tiny-trash”, approximately 3–25mm, such as fragments of plastics, styrofoam, and cigarette butts. Manual cleanup efforts often ignore this, as they can be time consuming to pick up. What ends up happening is this debris accumulates on the shoreline. As these items take a while to biodegrade, they pose an ecological threat. It turns out this type of debris is the leading items reported through efforts such as the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup.

Robot Missions Field Test at Westboro Beach, Ottawa, Canada. September 2017. Credit: Eric McRae, licensed under CC-BY 4.0

Our vision is to deploy at least one robot per park in Ontario by 2030 in order to make it more efficient to clean up this debris. The robots will work together as a fleet, where each robot can have a specific function.

So far, we’ve had great help from volunteers to support the mission. We’ve been on 20 Field Tests in Ottawa and Toronto, engaging with over 250 participants.

In order to expand globally, distributed manufacturing will come into play. We aim to see makers and Fab Labs replicating the robot on their 3D printers. So far, we’ve started to beta test this idea by crowd-sourcing the 3D printing of a Bowie in Ottawa. We have about half of the pieces complete.

AP: That’s an interesting set of goals. It’s clear to me what you mean by clean-up. Tell me more about how Bowie will be involved in restoration and observation.

Erin: For restoration, what we’re mainly thinking of is adding a seed planter to the robot, then have it navigate transects near the top of a shoreline to plant grass seed, or whichever vegetation would be suitable, in order to prevent erosion.

In terms of observation, what we’re thinking of is monitoring wildlife by mounting cameras on the robots and having them rove outside for at least 48 hours. Ideally, maybe we can see what is happening with animals and wildlife while also being able to move around, unlike static or stationary cameras.

AP: So what’s so cool about robots?

Erin: If you’re familiar with the phrase “A computer is a bicycle for the mind”, what’s cool about robots is that they are akin to being able to have ten bicycles going at the same time. Plus, unlike in the virtual world, the robots can actuate based on what it senses. The idea of having agents operate alongside humans, a parallelization of our tasks and activities, in order to help us solve problems — this is what sparks the interest in robotics.

AP: How did you get involved in all the various aspects of building robots — hardware, design, software? Did you go to a specific school? Or is it something you picked up?

Erin: As a kid I was really into sports, then I was injured for a summer. To keep entertained, I became addicted to building robots with a Lego Mindstorms kit. From there, I built off of those learnings with the Arduino, just as it was starting to become more well-known, back around 2008. There weren’t as many tutorials online at that time, so it was a fun way to explore and figure out how to make all of this work together.

Through that tinkering was how I learned about hardware. For programming, I was also playing around with Processing — it’s so much fun because it’s visual. There’s a fun memory of liking Processing so much that at a Maker Faire I tried to help modify someone else’s sound-reactive sketch on the fly!

You mentioned about getting the Arduino to talk with Twitter — combining the two worlds of hardware and software really interested me for some time. To create a blended reality of sorts where there was a robot in the real world, triggering actions in a virtual world. For example, with one of my robot creations, RoboBrrd, I developed an iPad app where you could drag virtual fruit into RoboBrrd’s mouth, and the robot ‘ate’ it in real life.

Evil Mad Scientist’s Ostrich EggBot. Image by Lenore Edman on Flickr, licensed under CC-BY 2.0.

Started to learn design a little later. Through an artist in residence position at Evil Mad Science, I had the opportunity to learn about design from Windell and Lenore. If you look at their open source hardware kits, you can see the detail that goes in to their designs. Their tips and feedback helped the RoboBrrd kit have a sturdier design, this learning experience was really key to that.

Continuing with more learning, in a round about way, I heard about the Fab Academy, and thankfully they allowed me to be a remote student from AS220. Through this I learned some more about digital fabrication, it was based off of the class How to Make (Almost) Anything. Their model of education — a global network of labs with almost the same inventory, and joining in a classroom online while working with your peers in the lab — is intriguing, now they’re launching an Academy around this, complete with a thesis program too.

This was a long answer to a short question, but in summary the common theme is finding people to share your passion and learning with, such as online groups, communities, and forums who are helpful to answer questions or contribute constructive thoughts. I’m thankful to the people in communities that helped when I was just starting out, such as the one Jeri Ellsworth started — Fat Man and Circuit Girl. Even now with Twitter and the like, it’s fun to be in communities.

In terms of school, I was able to showcase projects I was working on through science fairs. They were usually pretty out there, though, so I never advanced to the next stages. But that’s okay. [laughs]

AP: It’s totally okay. [laughs].

Erin: For example, a question that killed one of my science fair projects was, “Why would you even want to talk to a robot?” Fast forward a bit of time and now I ask, “Now we have Siri, does that answer your question?”

AP: Seriously?

Erin: Yes.

AP: So you invented Siri? [laughs]

Erin: Maybe, I don’t know. [laughter].

Not quite of course, because the robot I was working on was more finite in speech recognition, and with Siri’s AI you can have a more freedom for what it can recognize rather than just phrases.

AP: That’s still pretty cool. What year was that roughly?

Erin: That one was a 2008 project.

AP: That’s pretty early for something that has now become a huge industry. You were playing with these concepts about ten years ago!

Erin: Gosh. The really fun part was actually mapping out the decision tree logic for that. It’s the stuff behind the scenes.

AP: So I wanted to go back to a comment you made just now. Tell me a bit more about how you found these communities to work with in those early days? What do they do for Robot Missions right now? What’s that relationship like for you?

Erin: For the first question, finding the communities, how I did it initially was I started a blog, when blogs were popular, and people didn’t rely as much on social media. I would post about what I was working on. Communities are super important to invite people into the world that you are creating.

For Robot Missions, the exciting part about the community aspect is that we’re spanning across different sectors. There’s the environmental side, the technology side and also the educational side. For each of those, we offer this experience where it’s a mixture of everything.

AP: As I understand it, Robot Missions will also be an open sourced project? What’s the status?

Erin: We do plan to release it open source when it’s ready. Something I learned from my previous open source hardware projects is that when you release something open source, you need to make sure the documentation is excellent, in order for people to be able to replicate it properly.

We’ve began opening up the robot to other beta testers, as well as crowd-sourcing the creation of an entire robot by makers in Ottawa and eastern Ontario. We also now have one robot in Rochester, New York that has been replicated — it’s on the other side of Lake Ontario.

AP: So why open source?

Erin: As we talked about before, personally, a bulk of my educational experiences stem from open source — especially the maker movement. I think there’s a huge value in open source for education.

Often times funding can pose a barrier. When the funding source allows for open source development, then I don’t see there being a reason to not consider it. That said, if the goal is to utilise distributed manufacturing to share the invention, then properly documenting it can take some time, which should be accounted for. Maybe the case is different for “professional” inventors, who have the resources to patent their work.

Two Bowies. Credit: Eric McRae, licensed under CC-BY 4.0

Open source can be a great way to get an idea out there really fast. For Robot Missions, we will want to see this idea other places in the world. The way it can scale is through distributed manufacturing. For example, if you go anywhere in the world that has a 3D printer, we want that place to be able to replicate this robot. Fab Labs have a global inventory of tools and parts, such as laser cutters, chips and resistors, etc. Eventually, it would be great to see the Robot Missions robot platform included on this list as a standard tool for a Fab Lab so that way participants in the lab can use it for mobile experiments. It would be a tool on hand if a member of the community would need to loan it out to do a beach cleanup. Robots on demand!

Additionally, something that I think of is how open source hardware can reduce isolation. Imagine someone invents something, making it by themselves, maybe there’s no local hackerspace around, maybe they even get bullied at school for being ‘geeky’. Then they document and release it open source, and maybe Hackaday or Adafruit covers it. Now all of a sudden, they have the chance of more people hearing about the project and making connections. Maybe they’ll have questions from readers, and maybe some will replicate and modify it. With this gem that was created in someone’s mind, now they are interacting with more people who also understand that gem. They found their tribe by sharing their creativity. This wouldn’t be able to happen without open source hardware. We really build on the shoulders of giants with it.

AP: Interesting. So, you’re really thinking about this as a platform.

Erin: Yes. We’re trying to democratize the ability to use robots in order to empower people to solve environmental problems. Getting this tool in the hands of many people, is one of the things that we’re aiming for.

AP: Do you think this will also have a role to play in educating people about environmental science?

Robot Missions robot in action, Credit: Eric McRae, licensed under CC-BY 4.0

Erin: A goal will be to educate, but more importantly it will be to show that we, as individuals, have the capability to invent new ways to tackle the problems that are facing our environment.

AP: How would you build this global community of people working with Bowie or this platform? Or are there other ways that you’re conditioning this right now?

Erin: That’s a question I’m grappling with now. I would ideally want people to show us that they have assembled a group first, in order to build one of our robots. Then the relevant files would be distributed. But at the same time, this could create problems, as it might prevent opportunities from emerging. For instance, if we do let individuals replicate robot freely, maybe the communities will emerge organically if they bring the robot to a park.

AP: So now I’m curious, what’s your process for troubleshooting problems that come up during your projects? Sometimes I’ve seen you post on social media about a technical problem you are facing.

Erin: There’s actually a few steps before posting on social media. First one is to go through your build all over again and make sure that this is a real bug. The second one is, cry. It sounds horrible but it’s true. Then try maybe two different ways. Then cry again. Finally, post on social media.

AP: Sounds like posting on social media sounds is your last resort.

Erin: Yeah.

AP: Have you found success by doing that?

Erin: Yes, maybe I should put it further up in the queue.

AP: Well, it sounds like some of the early steps are actually quite important. Is it a real bug? Can I reproduce it? Also actually trying a couple of things doesn’t hurt. Its also interesting that you have found success by sharing your challenges.

Erin: People have been really generous to help out. Our latest bug was with communications over serial. Someone is sending us a cool logic analyzer that I can plug in to my computer.

AP: Wow. I didn’t expect that. That’s a really tangible contribution.

Erin: Yeah, and it’s really expensive too. It’s just amazing how people are willing to help out.

AP: I suppose a lot of people are not used to publicly admitting that they failed at something or they can’t figure something out. There’s always a barrier to that. At least in your experience, you found that people are quite generous with helping.

Erin: I think it’s helpful to dedicate some time to thinking about the problem before posting or sharing it because in order to get the help, you’re going to have to be able to communicate everything exactly. If you don’t put in the time initially to think about it, then it could be a bit of a wasted effort.

AP: Especially if somebody’s spending their time to give a piece of advice but you haven’t put the time in to understand the problem. It’s probably a good practice to practice going through your problem logically.

Erin: Sometimes, hardware just isn’t logical. A cool phrase someone said to me once about robotics was that, “this stuff is so complicated, nobody understands it all.” For robots, it’s an entire system. If one part of it isn’t working, don’t worry too much about it because nobody understands this stuff when it’s all comprised of so many moving parts.

That being said, being able to take what we dream up in our heads and make it into reality with hardware is simply amazing. Especially when these go on to impact more people. I hope that in the future many more people will try being creative with electronics, mechanisms, materials, and other types of hardware.

AP: I guess this is why it’s so important to get your hands dirty, start sharing successes and failures and working together as a community. It’s great to hear about Robot Missions and how you are attempting to tackle these issues. I’m really looking forward to everything that comes out of it. Thanks again for taking the time to share a little about yourself and your work.

Erin: Thanks for taking the time to do this. It’s been fun! [High five!]