March 22, 2023

Viam-Powered Victory: The Winning Robots at MakeMIT 2023

Written by
Arielle Mella
Developer Advocate

How do robots eat salsa? … With microchips! 🤖

Hardware jokes aside, we had a blast helping students build cool robots at MakeMIT 2023. As a hardware-focused hackathon for undergraduate students hosted by MIT, this year’s event was all about the theme Recovery

From an autonomous ping-pong ball recovery robot to a robot that tracks local air pollution, we got to see some neat interpretations and projects from students. And, we’re thrilled to say that the three of the winning projects for the hackathon were Viam-powered!

Workshopping it up

Our mission at Viam is to make robotics (especially robotics software) accessible to people with different backgrounds in hardware and software, so we kicked off the fun by hosting a student workshop leading up to the hackathon. 

To give students a leg up in the upcoming challenge, our team focused on demonstrating how students could configure components in minutes and immediately test hardware using Viam.

Using a Viam Rover as a base, students got to pick from three workshop prompts:

  • Build a robot that creates a GIF of its point of view roaming around
  • Build a robot that creates a map of its surroundings
  • Configure sensors that trigger components in a candy machine

Based on these prompts, our participants got hands-on practice with topics like:

  • Configuring sensors, actuators, and other hardware components
  • Working with higher-level services like SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) and computer vision to control robots
  • Using data management to collect data from different components.

It was awesome to see the reactions—many students couldn't believe how intuitive it was to do all that, and even swap out components with ease, just using Viam.

Students at the Viam workshop at MakeMIT 2023
You can see the lightbulb going off in this student’s brain!

With inspiration in mind and some experience under their belts, students went on to build some really cool robots over the hackathon weekend. Get a look at some of the winning projects below and see how students took on the challenge in just 24 hours.

We have a winner (robot)!

The hackathon weekend kicked off with some interesting keynote talks—one of which I had the opportunity to give! Considering that the hackathon was hardware-focused, I shared how my background in design and fabrication helps me prototype and build robotics projects today.

Arielle Mella, Developer Advocate, giving a talk at MakeMIT 2023
Giving my keynote talk at MakeMIT!

I also shared some ways Viam helps makers spend less time on implementing software aspects of robotics projects so they can spend more time on the fun stuff—designing, prototyping, and iterating on their robotic ideas! Read on to see how students did just that for their winning MakeMIT projects.

Autonomous Ping-Pong Recovery Robot

In first place overall and winner of the category “best use of software in hardware-based project,” we have the Autonomous Ping-Pong Ball Recovery Robot—because, in the builders’ words, “Face it! We all hate chasing after ping pong balls.” 

The robot was designed to autonomously navigate around and use computer vision to identify and collect ping-pong balls strewn across the floor. Then, the robot launches the balls right back at you using a vacuum pump launcher. Very handy!

Check out some highlights of this team’s build process below or get more details on Devpost:

  • Used a Viam Rover as the robot’s base
  • Used the Viam platform to configure a camera and deploy computer vision code to the robot with our object detection and classification services
  • Designed and laser cut a custom trough with a motor feed system to collect the ping-pong balls
  • Prototyped a vacuum cannon launcher to launch ping-pong balls back out 

While the team faced challenges with hardware limitations and prototyping the vacuum launcher, they ultimately got all the components working in tandem and triumphed in first place, taking home $2,000 and Viam Rovers as prizes!

Smog Dog, a pollution point of origin tracker

It’s always inspiring to see a robot that tackles one of the most pressing issues of our time—air pollution. Smog Dog won prizes in not just one but two categories: “Infosys InStep Grand Prize” and “Best use of 5G, IoT, and sensors to innovate and solve the problem to move this world forward.”

The team designed a platform that tracks pollution particles from their points of origin to where the pollution will go based on wind speed and direction. 

As part of this platform, the team built an autonomous rover (the Smog Dog) that gathers data about local pollution and logs this data to a web app in which users can see information about specific polluters in the environment. One team member noted:

“We were able to make our rover quite maneuverable with this arrangement thanks to Viam’s board function, which automatically ran the motors backwards and forwards to achieve seamless turns and spins.” 

Check out how the team approached building Smog Dog below or on Devpost:

  • Designed a rover base with brushless DC motors
  • Integrated a particle matter sensor (as a Viam custom component) and a wind sensor
  • Ran the Viam RDK on a Raspberry Pi 4 to control the rover, transmit a video feed to plan movement, and ingest sensor data
  • Used Viam's data management service to manage sensor data
  • Created a web app to integrate sensor and geospatial data to inform users about pollution in the local environment

It’s no small feat to create a working prototype like this in just 24 hours, and we’re happy that Viam could help speed up the process.

P.A.C.R., a mobile “backpack” robot

The winner in the “best use of software in a hardware-based project” category was P.A.C.R. Inspired by the theme of recovery, the team built a robot that can help individuals who have limited mobility or strength carry heavy objects or many items at once.

Check out some aspects of this team’s process below or see more on Devpost:

  • Hardware: created a mobile base using an main external frame, 12V motors, a basket for items, and also 3D-printed cat ears and LED strips for a cute and friendly aesthetic!
  • Software: used the Viam platform’s vision service and our RGB line follower tutorial to identify and determine where to move based on a guiding color on the user’s shoes

Even with a handful of connection and movement issues, the team got everything to work and learned some new things along the way (one team member even learned how to code for the first time!).

BarkPak, an IoT harness that aids search-and-rescue dogs

While not a winning project, this one certainly deserves an honorable mention—BarkPak, a search-and-rescue harness solution that helps our trusty canine friends find survivors in natural disasters like avalanches or earthquakes. 

The team sought out to augment dogs’ keen sense of smell in finding survivors by building an IoT device that integrates computer vision, GPS, and LIDAR. The device also included a microphone to detect barks that rescue dogs often make when they’ve found a person.

The MakeMIT team that built BarkPak
A proud team and happy pup!

Check out some parts of this team’s process below or get the details on Devpost:

  • Designed and 3D-printed parts for the harness
  • Used the Viam platform to prototype and test the LIDAR with SLAM to generate maps of their environment
  • Integrated an android phone for GPS and the microphone
  • Wrote Python scripts to gather and integrate data from sensors, and to get all the parts working together
  • (gyro & accelerometer sensors)

The team was proud of how much they learned integrating different kinds of sensors, and had a lot of fun along the way (we think the pups had fun too!).

Build on with our community

This year’s MakeMIT was a jam-packed, fun-filled time for students and our team alike. We were blown away by the participants’ curiosity and creativity—and we’re proud to have played a part in helping students learn key hardware, software, and robotics skills through the challenge. 

We have more opportunities for folks with any level of experience to get started with robotics or deepen their knowledge. Join our Discord community to connect and learn from other robotics enthusiasts, get help from our team, or learn about our upcoming events. Let’s build on together!

March 22, 2023

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