Ottawa-made robot to clean up Westboro beach this summer

Westboro Beach
Erin Kennedy and Bowie the beach-combing robot at Westboro Beach. (Photo by Andrea Tomkins / Kitchissippi Times)

A local startup is rallying the community to crowdfund a made-in-Ottawa fix for trash littering the National Capital Region’s beaches.

Bowie, a 3D-printed robot on wheels, is that fix. His creator, Erin Kennedy, is the founder of Ottawa-based Robot Missions.

She tells Techopia that she was inspired to create a robot that could clean up shorelines when she noticed a pile of trash at her feet a few years back. It was the small stuff – cigarette butts and tiny plastics – that most passers-by wouldn’t concern themselves with, but which nonetheless adds up to significant environmental harm.

Nearly 400,000 kilograms of trash has been picked up off of Canadian shorelines in the past three years as part of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. Tiny plastics or foam and cigarette butts are the two most common forms of waste found on shorelines.

“Why not build a robot, and combine the efforts of techies and environmentalists to tackle this global challenge?”

Kennedy realized that the effort of bending down and collecting small bits of litter could seem like a big task for a person – but not for a robot.

“Why not build a robot, and combine the efforts of techies and environmentalists to tackle this global challenge?” she asks.

Bowie stands at less than a foot off the ground. Equipped with a shovel and a filter on its back, the robot can scoop sand and dump the debris back into its body, letting the earth fall through but catching any litter. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got to see Bowie in action during a recent visit to Bayview Yards.

Since its inception, Robot Missions has made use of a number of grants from organizations including Ontario Centres of Excellence and Awesome Ottawa. That funding, combined with pitchfest wins and an earlier $10,000 crowdfunding campaign, has kept Kennedy and her team of four volunteers in business.

One of the most significant supporters, however, has been MadeMill. The makerspace at Bayview Yards has lent its support to Robot Missions, giving Kennedy tips on 3D printing. She says she also developed a new drive system with the help of the shop’s waterjet cutter.

Kennedy now works as an electronics designer at MadeMill, and Robot Missions will be using one of the shop’s Innovation Pods on Westboro Beach this summer.

The City of Ottawa has granted Robot Missions permission to test its cleanup capabilities on the local beach, with Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper giving the pilot his seal of approval. For the trial to be fully productive, Kennedy says, the firm’s Kickstarter campaign will need to hit its $13,500 target. At the time of writing, funding was around $10,000 short of that goal.

Kennedy says she opted to go the crowdfunding route because Robot Missions is, at its core, a community-led initiative. She says Westboro residents have embraced seeing Bowie outside, and that if more people buy in, they’ll see tangible results in their own neighbourhoods.

Robot Missions has already inspired students at the University of Ottawa. During a recent design day event, more than 100 engineering students developed new modules for Bowie, including seed dispensers and weed snippers. Kennedy says people see the robot as an open platform for their improving local environments.

The young founder would like to see a Bowie in every park in Ontario by 2030. Beyond that, municipalities could roll out fleets of autonomous robots to clean neighbourhoods after a storm or festival, and residents could rent their own Bowie from a local library to experiment on their own projects.

Though the robot itself is one small step for machines, Kennedy believes Bowie could be one giant leap for humankind.

“We’re going to need better tools to tackle the challenges we’re facing and the ones to come.”