As part of the Astronautics Research Group‘s outreach and public engagement, last Saturday marked our first adventure in this year’s National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW), with our annual involvement in the University of Southampton’s Science & Engineering Day on campus. Each year, we’ve managed to significantly increase our display stand and materials, and this year marked our biggest and best exhibit yet. Here follows a short summary of the day’s events, what we had on show and some photographs from the day.
Having set up most of our banners and posters the night before, Ben (spaceman_ben) and myself (zinar7) arrived at a deathly-quiet Building 85 at 0800 hours prompt to set up the rest of our kit and get everything up and running. Thankfully for my sanity (and probably the safety of the general public), the University had elected to open the cafe in Building 85 at 8:00 am, and we were able to procure caffeine-filled beverages and sugary goods straight away to fortify us for the rest of the day, which was due to begin at 10:30 am and run until 4:30 pm, followed by packing up all the kit and hauling back to our offices for storage. A long day, then, but all in the name of science and trying to encourage the youngsters of today to get excited about all things ‘Space’.
Our touch-screen PCs were unpacked and booted up, our digital photo frames secured to our 2 m x 2 m backdrop banner, and the rest of our display materials dotted around our allocated ‘zone’, leaving us the remaining time to sort out the major new addition to our exhibit: Aquabot, the water-collecting Mars rover made from LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0:
Aquabot was conceived, built and programmed in the ten or so days prior to the event, after Ben and I had gotten hold of a current-generation Mindstorms kit in order to evaluate its usefulness in outreach for the Astro Research Group and in undergraduate teaching/projects: we’re hoping to use multiple kits when the next-generation is released later this year, to allow students to develop simple group projects looking at spacecraft control and formation flying (among other things). Our main focus, at least for NSEW, was on making something cool and vaguely space-related to encourage youngsters towards the space industry, and getting them excited about engineering in general. The result, then, was a rover of our own design (and vaguely anthropomorphic qualities) constructed to ‘rove’ around a table (without falling off), collecting up balls and doing some basic colour-sorting; something like this:
Attached to the front of the rover, pointing downwards between the ‘jaws’ of Aquabot‘s maw, was the NXT colour sensor. To simulate the Mars environment, we used black card as a base, placed on a few large tables to make an area around 7 x 5 feet of black landscape. The colour sensor was programmed to catalogue the colour of the table surface and also of any balls that happen to roll into Aquabot‘s gape; and to ‘carry on as normal’ if sensing a black response. The rover was powered using two motors, and was run on caterpillar tracks to aid manoeuvrability and response. At the front of the vehicle, a funnel was placed to collect balls as the rover moved around the environment (although it kind of just ‘punted’ balls across the landscape rather than funneling them in, but oh well). The third motor from the kit was installed at the front of the rover, to which was attached an arm with the NXT colour sensor: when a blue ball rolled into the ‘jaws’ and was detected by the sensor, the arm retreated to allow the “water molecule” into a storage area beneath the rover; when a yellow or red ball was collected, the arm rapidly swung forwards to ‘kick’ the unwanted “martian rock” away. When it worked, it worked pretty well; although if multiple balls rolled in at the same time, it would still be doing the operation for the first ball when the second ball arrived, and so wouldn’t accept/reject the second. Still, such times were comparatively rare, and it was always satisfying when the rover detected an unwanted ball and punted it away with great force.
Around the edges of the black card, we made a border of green card to make a ‘buffer’ around the edge of the table, which Aquabot would detect and subsequently turn round and return to the black region. But, because sometimes Aquabot would decide to choose its own fate and plough on through the green area regardless (for example, when there was already a ball in the jaws, and the sensor couldn’t see the ‘green’), we put up a barrier (of more card) around the edge to stop the rover (also any stray balls) from leaping off the table and plummeting to the floor. We managed to get to the end of the day with Aquabot pretty intact (minus the sum of around 12 fresh batteries) and all of the balls we started with, so I call that a success.
All in all, I think our LEGO Mindstorms experiment were rather well: the publicity of the recent Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) mission has highlighted the current activities using autonomous rover in space, and many visitors were familiar with this mission and could draw comparisons with our simple reconstruction of a Mars rover. It was also encouraging that so many children (and parents) grasped the basic concepts of the system, and how even a simple robot could be programmed to carry out a range of functions without human interaction.
In terms of our regular activities, we had a lot of kids try out our Space Junker game on the large touch-screen PCs (developed by the Science Museum with our involvement), and plenty of parents and other adults reading our research posters and talking to us about our research into space debris and the problems that ‘space junk’ poses to space operations. Our other display materials also went down pretty well, which included our big stand, leaflets & pamphlets about the undergraduate programs in Space Systems Engineering, and these natty little cubes which I made to communicate some of our research into space debris and some of the problems:
Anyway, a fun day was (I think) had by all, and we seemed to get a pretty great response from the Science & Engineering Day hordes that came to campus despite the dreary weather. For our point of view, it was yet again an entertaining, rewarding and uplifting outreach event, and getting a whole load of exposure for our research activities. A hugely exhausting event that seems to expend so much energy and brain/musclepower, but immensely fun.
Nonetheless, we’ll be doing it all tomorrow for our second activity in NSEW, which is the Big Bang Solent science fair, happening on campus at the University of Southampton. We’ve mainly got the same set-up, but this time Aquabot will be replaced by the second iteration of our Mindstorms display, Debrisbot: instead of wandering the Mars landscape looking for blue balls, Debrisbot will be navigating “outer space” (albeit an ‘outer space’ that has been transplanted into two dimensions), trying to “collision-avoidance” manoeuvres with various objects (“space debris”) placed in orbit. Not quite sure how Debrisbot will perform as yet, but hopefully it should be another entertaining and engaging day of science, engineering and being a big kid again.
Anyway, before I head off, here are some more photos from Saturday’s event; hopefully some of tomorrow will manifest in due course. Enjoy!