This student-designed robot could help put a stop to global warming
© Team Robocean
Edinburgh Uni's Niall McGrath and Isobel Harris, plus seven other engineers, are the NTT wildcard winners for the Red Bull Basement 2020 Global Workshop. Here's the story of their invention, ROBOCEAN.
The stats say it all.
Seagrass meadows only occupy 0.1% of the world’s seafloors, but are responsible for 11% of all organic oceanic CO2 storage. They support 50% of the world’s fisheries. They are 35 times more effective than the Amazon rainforest at capturing CO2, per square metre. They are, as the promo video for ROBOCEAN will tell you, quite simply “the lungs of the ocean”.
And yet in the last 100 years, 92% of British seagrass has disappeared (compared to 35% worldwide).
There are numerous reasons for this. When a boat drops an anchor and it scrapes along the seabed, it kills seagrass. When sewage and livestock waste finds its way into the sea, it kills seagrass. Water pollution, generally, kills seagrass. It is a delicate plant that needs optimum conditions to thrive.
We'd love a retweet from David Attenborough, or even just a like,
So when Niall McGrath, the Project Director of ROBOCEAN, came across a group of people called Project Seagrass it piqued his interest. As someone with a lifelong interest in environmental issues, Project Seagrass’s plan to restore large areas of former seagrass meadows around the UK sounded good. As an engineering student, the plan to ask volunteers in local communities to collect and sow every single one of one million seeds by hand sounded like an idea that needed refining.
“I was reading stories highlighting the damage that’s been done,” he says. “We’re losing the equivalent of two football pitches every hour. But what really stuck out to me was how they were actually planting these seeds. They’re taking huge teams of volunteer divers to collect one million seeds by hand, and then distribute them across 20 hectares across the coast of Wales or something like that. A ludicrous amount of resource management. So I started thinking thought about how you could automate the process and make it more efficient. And that’s where everything started.”
This was a year ago, in the winter of 2019, and nothing really happened until the spring of 2020 when the country went into lockdown because of the Coronavirus pandemic. After finishing their exams online “a lot of us found ourselves with nothing to do”, says Niall. “So I asked a few friends if they could look around and see if anyone would be interested in working on this project. We started off with six of us and we started to do a bit of research before realising that we did not have the full skillset to fully realize this robot that plants seeds. We asked three friends of ours who are electrical engineers to help us deal with the issue, and that was the start of it. We then spent five months researching and planning a prototype.”
Isobel Harris, a Mechanical Engineer on the project, has been good friends with Niall since first year. Her job is to suss out how the robot is going to swim.
“The plan is for a laptop to be the controller,” she says. “But we do have a plan to make an autonomous one eventually so you would drop it and it just goes itself. That is the eventual plan. That is what we started designing but it is much harder to do because you need accurate mapping and a really sophisticated sensor system, so it doesn’t bump into anything. That’s more sophisticated than what we have the capabilities to do at the moment. There will be a camera in front of it and a light, but the lightbulb will need to be specific because some fish are sensitive to some types of light.”
If we make the seeds smell like octopus the crabs will stay away...
And fish are not the only marine life they need to take into consideration. “We were chatting to the guys at Project Sea Grass,” says Niall. “And they distribute their seeds in these little hessian bags, 50 seeds per bag, and they anchor it to the sea floor and hope that one of the seeds takes root. One of the primary advantages of this bag is crabs cannot get in and eat the seeds.”
The idea with ROBOCEAN is to remove the bag from the equation so the seed germination process is more efficient. But how to keep the crabs away? “Recently I found out about this octopus gel from a marine biologist guy in Edinburgh I was chatting to,” he says. “And basically crabs are scared of octopus because they’re natural predators, and they predate crabs historically so they have a deep-rooted fear of them. There’s this theory that if we make the seeds smell like octopus the crabs will stay away. Alternatively we can just make the seeds taste bad but then we’d need to figure out how crabs taste and things like that. That is probably the height of the marine life problems that face us.”
How the robot works
The fully realized robot will:
- Be dropped into the sea
- Float to the sea floor
- Work its way along the sea floor, sowing seeds
- Go back to the boat for refill when it's out of gel and seeds
- Return to the sea for more seed sowing
- Save the world (hopefully)
Red Bull Basement Overall Victory, and beyond!
Niall, Isobel and their team want to build a prototype, but making robots costs money. “We applied for a grant through Edinburgh University yesterday,” says Niall. “We’ve gone for the cheapest possible method: 3D printing a lot of it through the University which is free, laser-cutting some stainless steel through the University for free, so all we need to do is pay for the material and assemble it, which is the absolute bare bones of what could possibly work.”
But throw a Red Bull Basement victory into the mix and things would change. They would get some money to build a prototype, for a start. A prototype would enable them to test the robot on a 5 x 5 meter test site, work out exactly how much it needs to weigh, work out exactly what the gel flow rates needs to be, and work out exactly how fast it can move, among many other finer details.
But perhaps more important, says Niall, would be “the support we'd get to help us develop the idea. It’s always good to have experts who are totally unrelated to you – they’re not your friends or at your uni – say, ‘This is a good idea, this could be a viable business’, It’s nice to have a non-biased perspective. So that and the idea of some kind of mentorship would be a big plus for us.”
If they don't win, the next best thing would be "a retweet from David Attenborough, or even just a like," says Niall.
He continues: "He’s one of the biggest inspirations in my life. I've been watching his documentaries since I was four years old, absolutely amazed by the wild world. His recent Netflix documentary highlighted where we’re going to go if we don’t act on climate change, and three of us on the team were watching it together. He went decade by decade through all the catastrophic things we’re going to experience and I remember thinking, ‘This is our lifetime, and if we don’t do something we’re going to actually live through this’. Then he was sort of a bit optimistic and he said we can tackle this with modern technology and geo-engineering and more efficient ways of doing things, and we thought, 'Well there’s a testament to the things we’re trying to do, clearly it’s worthwhile.' That gave us a push.
"So yeah, if he heard about us I’d be quite happy!"
An important message from NTT
NTT are a global technology services company, and they chose ROBOCEAN as their wildcard choice to go through to the Red Bull Basement 2020 Global Workshop.
"We wanted to engage our employees in the Red Bull Basement programme and so we asked them to vote on our wildcard decision," says Marisa van Vuuren, Senior Vice President: Brand and Major Projects at NTT Ltd. "It was a really close race, as there were so many great submissions, but ultimately ROBOCEAN won the hearts of our 40,000 employees across the globe. I think this team’s submission really resonated with our employees because it is original and innovative. It also demonstrated the potential power of using technology for good."