Meet Pepi, a Bulgarian Robot for Which Crossing Mazes Is a Piece of Cake
Three young inventors were received with much applause by the public at the opening ceremony of CEEDS’15 by Webit, the biggest IT event in Eastern Europe. Venezia Georgieva, Nikita Ovsyannikov, and Boris Zyumbyulev, high school students at the American College in Sofia, stand out for winning an international contest held in Vienna this March with a robot that can smoothly cross remote and hardly accessible areas, giving feedback to users.
We decided to learn more about the robot, which was part of the so-called Maze Project, and asked the team to tell us more.
If you have seen Prometheus, the 2012 sci-fi movie, you might remember the small round widget which was able to fly, scan the area and provide information. If you haven't, you are to read about something inspired by this futuristic device.
Something which is better, because it is real. And it was made by students.
The Maze Robot’s purpose was to explore further the application of sensors, machines that can detect changes in their environment. To make it more simple, it can also help people explore or get a clearer notion of sites which a human being finds hardly accessible or where remoteness or dimensions make it difficult for anyone to set foot. They say an improved version might be fit for researchers, amateur explorers and tourists alike.
The name itself, however, doesn’t hide any complicated metaphors. As Boris, one of the three young inventors, tells us, it was chosen because,“in order to demonstrate how the device works, we made quite a large labyrinth through which it had to pass.” This construction was used both at the school fair and in Vienna. Still, the robot itself is named differently: they decided it should be called “Pepi”, because “at an international festival it should have a Bulgarian name”.
What started as a hobby and a science fair project was inspired by Prometheus. "We decided that the idea is great and we wanted to bring it into the real world," Boris explains, but adds that it was the interest in robotics and team work that inspired them to begin.
As their report for the Vienna International Science and Engineering Fair reads: The Maze Robot aims to determine if these sensors [Ultrasonic sensors, which use ultrasound, a wave above 20 000 Hz, beyond what the human year can detect] can be used to safely explore unknown areas, such as caves or labyrinths.
To this end, Boris, Nikita and Venezia built a 2-3 meter long and 1 meter wide maze with various tunnels and corridors. Pepi, a small 10x20 cm robot, was then constructed which contains “a small ultrasonic sensor serving as the ‘eyes’ of the robot.” A lengthy computer code (on a language similar to Java) was imported to the robot’s motherboard which had to “visualize the pre-constructed maze and not to bump into any of the maze walls,” also providing feedback about the distance being passed and turns that are being taken and enabling anyone to follow the trajectory.
The result was an outright success: “after placing the robot in the labyrinth it managed to avoid hitting obstacles and eventually safely solved the maze. Therefore, the ultrasonic sensors on similar robots can be used to check if unknown areas for people are safe or not. They prove to be an inexpensive solution for scanning dangerous geographical, geological or construction zones.”
Is It Easy to Make a Robot?
Was it their friendship that made them join hands, or was it the other way around? In Bulgaria it’s not uncommon for young and talented people to say they feel discouraged by either the environment or the lack of people sharing the same views or interests. But judging by the words of Boris this was not the case with the three inventors. Friendly bonds, but also common (and diverging) interests as well helped them: coding (Nikita and Venezia) and physics (Nikita and Boris) and a certain affinity for humanities and even literature (with Boris and Venezia writing stories and poems as a hobby). The latter was “quite useful” when the three had to work with documents, Boris says.
Venezia adds that school environment was quite supportive as well: apart from the diversity of activities offered to teenagers at the American College, two Physics teachers (Ms Mariana Pavlova and Krasimira Chakarova) seem to have provided invaluable assistance all the time.
The first challenge, a science contest held only at the college, was also the first breakthrough for the Maze Robot: not only did the trio win the first prize in their category but also the vote of the public. It was Ms Chakarova who pointed them the way to the Vienna fair that followed. She also supported them in the making of posters, a report and some improvements on the robot- everything it takes to promote the device internationally.
It took between BGN 300 and BGN 400 to carry out The Maze Project, and though for high school students this might not be an easily available sum, the three could count on support. “Our parents were happy to help us financially, and were even more satisfied with the results," Venezia says. So it wasn’t the financial side, but building the robot that they found the most difficult:
“It took us a lot of time to make it rotate exactly 90 degrees, and if it turns more or less it will not be precise in its movement later. Generally it was programming that took us the longest time, since we often had to make changes to the code.”
From Teachers to Security Services: A Device Anyone Could Use
The young inventors were unable to collect their award in person; and yet, Pepi was worth all the effort. At the Vienna International Science and Engineering Fair on March 14, there was one more robot to compete alongside other devices, but unlike it Pepi was made of materials they had picked by themselves. In the Engineering and Technology category, the jury said that challenges included "designing and building the platform, integration the sensors, programming the robot and building the maze," with the trio introducing "improvements" over time. This helped the Maze Robot become “Best Overall Senior Project”. For the American College this was not just a debut, but a double debut: there was another team as well which came second.
But what was it that made Pepi stand out among 100 "rival" devices?
"It enables anyone to use it," in Venezia's words. And even though the current prototype can still find its use mostly in safer areas and is likely to do poorly in more dynamic and dangerous ones, different versions could be developed depending on how it will be used. Its capacities could thus come in handy to groups of users beyond amateurs and tourists: "The main idea for it has always been to use it for research purposes, but the opportunities are not limited to that. It might as well be used as a toy, by researchers and possibly as a tool by security services," Venezia goes on, adding anyone could choose what options their robot might have.
The competition report has something to add to this description, concluding Pepi “has many applications both in illustrating concepts and in helping people in practice”: DC (Direct Current) motors are applied in a way showing “there work in action and [the robot] demonstrates how they can be used in vehicles. Since the robot is powered by two DC motors it shows their work in action and demonstrates how they can be used in vehicles. It also shows how important weight distribution and balance are in similar devices since if the materials were not properly placed (all of them on one side, for example) the machine would tilt and drift towards a particular side, instead of going straight. Therefore, it may be used by teachers as they explain different lessons in class.”
There are a lot of improvements to be made if the Maze Robot is to work well into more dynamic areas, the young inventors believe. One option is to add a camera which would give the user a better feedback. Others include sensors for temperature, radiation, humidity gases, and possibly a flashlight. According to Venezia, an increased durability (e.g. water resistance) and the introduction of an air sampling mechanism will help Pepi “become a professional apparatus.”
"We built the robot absolutely on our own and selected the materials for it on our own. The most important parts are from Arduino, while [the other basic components] were otherwise destined for toys, but we adapted them for our project".
And What About the Future?
“For the moment companies have not shown interest in [the robot],” Boris says. Nor did Webit bring about any specific proposals by IT companies. On the other hand, it certainly drew to the project “significant attention from the media,” Boris says. And even if no-one from the sector shows interest, the three are determined to take things into their own hands: “We are intending to make a serious business plan over the coming months… I believe there is much potential in the robot and we’ll not abandon the project and our ideas.”
Nevertheless, a good business plan will have to wait on hold as Venezia, Nick and Boris have lately pushed robotics a little aside: it is time for them to think about the future and to start making their way into a university. This, however, “doesn’t mean we have no intention to take part in other [science] forums after the summer. Not only do we have ideas for other projects, but as we said, we are not intending to leave this robot,” Venezia clarifies. The trio looks determined to develop this device further and to construct others as well.
One question remains: will this team last, developing into a bigger success story? We are yet to see, but at a certain point the teenagers might be treading different paths.
“[All] three of us intend on studying abroad,” Boris explains, and later makes it clear it is “certain” that none of them is keen on graduating from a Bulgarian university; for Nikita and Venezia the goal is Britain, while he’ll try there but in Italy, France and the US as well. And it’s not just robotics: Nikita is considering security systems and maybe Physics, and Venezia is interested in Animation. Still, both are weighing Software Engineering as an option. Boris for his part is finding it more difficult to decide: he hasn’t yet picked something out of several ideas such as Medicine, Law, Criminology, Humanities, or Finance. A list that doesn’t seem to include Robotics.
For now, plans about life after the university are not on the of immediate concern? The teenagers haven’t ruled at all Bulgaria as an option, but whether they will be back also remains to be seen.
“Forgive me the clich?, but the wind might blow us anywhere,” Boris concludes; and he has the full right to do so, since it might have been this very same “wind” that brought them together to help Pepi make its way through the maze.
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