Drones, Robots, And Scientists Join Forces For "Citizen Science"
With the advent of social media, we've seen just about everything in the modern world crowdsourced, from game development to venture capital to the manufacturing process. The scientific method is apparently the next item on the chopping block. Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to the concept of Citizen Science.
Citizen science is pretty much exactly what it sounds like - crowd-sourced scientific research, carried out by non-professional scientists. Pretty much anyone can be a citizen scientist; all it takes is the right tools and enough of an interest in the scientific process. It's also a lot more common than you'd think - take last weekend's Lake Merritt BioBlitz, which saw volunteers armed with smartphones documenting the biodiversity of one of the United States' oldest wildlife refuges.
With support from iNaturalist, The California Academy of Sciences, Wild Oakland and the Oakland Museum of California, participants photographed plants and animals all around the lake. The ultimate goal of the whole affair is to tap into these laymen researchers to assess the lake's health, determine an accurate species count and ultimately figure out how well current recovery efforts are working.
Of course, these volunteers weren't by themselves. They were assisted by a team comprised of both scientists and naturalists, as well as a whole cadre of robots. Overhead, a small fleet of autonomous drones buzzed about, collecting water quality methods. On the lakebed, meanwhile, remotely-operate submersibles documented the lake's aquatic species of plants and animals.
Apparently, BioBlitzes are a pretty common thing in citizen science - which has actually been around a lot longer than you might think - but the incorporation of these robots into the process was wholly unique. Before this particular BioBlitz, Ken McGary of Nerds for Nature gathered Bay Area technology developers and enthusiasts - counting among them David Lang, Eric Stackpole, and Sean Headrick - in order to figure out "novel methods for amassing environmental data."
The aerial model is an AeroTestra HUGO Multiroto Aircraft, outfitted with a tough exoskeleton which, according to Headrick, allows the drone to be both lighter and more durable. What this ultimately means is that it can carry heavier payloads through harsher conditions. Naturally, the drone is also completely watertight and able to land and take off from the waters surface. In order to collect data, it's been outfitted with sensors that allow it to detect temperature and pH. Each drone followed a preprogrammed flight path, allowing consistent sampling of a single location.
Moving along the lakebed in conjunction with HUGO was the OpenROV, a robot capable of diving deep into the water in order to investigate areas which might otherwise be inaccessible It's equipped with a high-quality camera that allows it to record live video of the lakebed, and controlled through a remote interface. Stackpole and his team - who developed the robot - spent the morning surrounded by eager children and adults wanting to try their hand at piloting one of the two OpenROV bots deployed by the event hosts.
Although both the ROVs and the HUGOs were packed up by noon, volunteers continued documenting the area, sampling mud flats, botanical gardens, and more. Overall, more than 1,000 observations were uploaded to the website by the event's 61 participants, for a total of 224 documented species. Not bad for a bunch of folks just passing the time on the weekend, is it?
The integration of autonomous robots and vehicles into BioBlitzes is just one more indication of how pervasive robotics is becoming in our everyday lives. Just as much, it's indicative of how robotics can enrich and improve both our personal lives and our understanding of the world.
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