If you’re anything like me, you almost immediately zone out as soon as people mention robots and other technology. At some point I began to wonder whether we’re making things up for the fun of it rather than for practical purposes—like, do we really need software that knows how you like your toast? Since I live in Ottawa, widely recognized as the techiest city in Canada, I am haunted by tech talk: AI here, software developing there, yadda yadda. “Uh huh, but how is any of this going to solve real problems, like climate change or food insecurity?” I often think to myself. I couldn’t help but think that techie people were completely disconnected from social reality.
And then I met Erin Kennedy, fondly referred to by her social media handle “RobotGrrl”. She is the owner and founder of Robot Missions, a grassroots group that automates park and shoreline cleanup with a low-cost, open-source, 3D-printable robot named Bowie. The whole point behind Robot Missions was to empower communities to tackle environmental challenges with the use of robotics. Can you say, “Awesome”?
Erin started learning about robotics when she was an active 13-year-old who’d gotten injured. She couldn’t play sports, so she resorted to playing with Lego Mindstorms kits. Thus began a passion that has culminated in a special interest in using technology to help the planet. Since, her robotics work has been featured in Forbes, on CBC, the Discovery Channel, and has earned her a Studio[Y] Fellowship at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, as well as a gold medal in the robot Olympics, RoboGames. You could say she’s done well in her field.
Robot Missions is currently focused on shoreline cleanup, especially of small, non-natural debris like cigarette butts and single-use cutlery. We’ve all seen those horrifying pictures of seagulls’ insides full of plastic. Bowie is designed to prevent that from happening; he is small enough to be able to pick up the tiny trash that is often missed by larger machinery and manual cleanup. Erin’s holistic approach to problem-solving led her to also give Bowie the ability to restore the environment, like by planting wildflower seeds to attract pollinators, and to collect data about the shoreline. The best part is that this kind of initiative has the potential to save municipalities millions (yes, you read that right) of dollars and thousands of hours of labour.
All of this is impressive, but the best part for me is Erin’s consistent creation of community. She has been building online communities through Robot Parties for years and Robot Missions is no different. Robot Grrl wants to share the technology, the knowledge, and the whole process with people in her community so they are empowered to effect real change. She wants people to attend and actively participate in her field trials and has deliberately open-sourced her designs to encourage others to replicate Bowie. By doing this, Erin harnesses the power of humanity to drive a more unique and useful kind of technology. She shows people what’s possible with robotics and encourages them to try it for themselves. I dig that.
Erin’s currently running a Kickstarter campaign. If you happen to think this is a worthwhile cause and you have some extra money sitting around, consider donating. If you don’t have the extra money, that’s totally cool because the campaign page itself is a worthwhile read.
What kinds of tech solutions to environmental problems do you know about? Tell me about it in the comments section below!