Sunday, November 15, 2015

Martian Mesa

I have a fairly lengthy commute to and from work. It was one of the only drawbacks to when I accepted the job. However since I have started that commute I have discovered some most excellent podcasts which now fill every minute of that commute and sometime even more. Most of my stations focus around coding, space, statistics (within the realm of data science), robotics and almost anything science related. With this bit of background my projects list might makes a little more sense.

Mars or Mesa

While cruising into work one morning a TED talk came up on my playlist with a guy named David Lang. David taught himself how to build a robot and start collecting oceanographic data. How he got started out was a lot like how I am trying to get going, he needed to collect data, didn’t have the money to buy the robot or equipment needed to do it, so he built it. He later went on to create openrov where he sells the kits he came up with for super cheap (comparatively). He got talking about collecting data remotely and using robots to do it and it totally inspired me to get back to my robot projects.  That was on the way in to work so I spend a good deal of time pondering what the next step was for my weather station and data collection units and how to make it mobile. Then on the way home I listened to one of my Space focused podcasts. 

With the recent release of the movie the Martian, which I loved, a lot of my space focused stations spent a few episodes discussing Mars exploration. One in particular had a panel of folks who represented specific areas within science who were interested in space exploration. There was a great discussion on whether we should focus on sending astronauts and scientists to Mars or if we should just keep sending robots. There was a geologist who said something a robot would take weeks to analyze, or possibly could never do, he could do if he were physically in the space in a couple minutes. The roboticist of course was like no way, I could get it done and then the astronaut was like hell no send me up and then the guy from NASA who obviously represented the budget was like well this is all going to cost  a lot of money. It was a great discussion and it inspired me to want to get into the space race and robotics. Then these two podcasts came together in my mind and my imagination almost exploded.

After these two came together I instantly wanted to build a robot that could roam around and start collecting data. This thought occurred to me right as I was cruising the North Shore Road coming around Lake Mead and I saw the Mormon Mesa and figured that it would be a perfect testing grounds. The Mesa Rover was born.

As I started to research the Mars rovers and look at pictures they had taken I was impressed with how similar Mars and the Mormon Mesa looked. The boys and I convened a conference in the shed and it was decided to begin work immediately.

So far we have built many protypes but feel like we have found a good design for the tracked robot. We have a pretty good center of gravity so that if it goes back onto the real part of the tracks or above 38 degrees pitch then if you put it in reverse it will go back onto the main part of the tracks.

We have also tested out the battery life and it will go .8 miles in 56 minutes on 8 recharable 1.2 volt 1300 MAH AA batteries. There is still a lot of testing to do with adding on the solar panels and recharging the batteries but it’s good to have a base line to run off of.

We also have the sensor pretty well dialed in that gives pitch, roll and heading. Today we calibrated the sensor to maintain a heading between 264 and 276 degrees which is a nearly easterly direction which is heading for the road that runs by our house. It took us a little bit to find the right course correction algorithm so as to not spend too much time bouncing back and forth between those headings.

Our next step will be to add in the sonar for object \ cliff detection. I will keep update as we make progress on our Mesa Martian Rover.

Hubble Telescope and Gold Butte
The next project has been in the works for a long time but I finally was able to bring it together after listening to one of my python coding podcasts a couple weeks ago.

Ever since I did the fire analysis project in 2014 I have wanted to study the effects of wild fires in the desert. I wanted to better understand how the desert responds after a fire but also possibly identify areas that haven’t yet burned but are most prone to so I could focus research there so if a fire did happen I would have a good base line to run on pre-fire. One of the pieces of analysis I would like to be able to do is to quantify vegetation cover or counts of plants per sq meter in a particular area. To do this I would need to be able to perform somewhat complex remote sensing type analysis. There is software out there that can do such analysis but I don’t have it nor the experience to run it, so I figured writing my own software would be a more attainable approach for me.

While driving into work a couple weeks ago I listened to a podcast called “Talk Python To Me” the host interviewed a scientist who was using part of the Science Kit modules called SKImage. The scientist was using the software to write algorithms to count cells in an image from a microscope but in a high level overview it’s the same concept as I wanted to do with aerial photographs of the desert. After listening to this it sounded like this would be a possibility for me to start work on my image analysis tool.

While researching the skimage module I found an algorithm that a team had written to analyze images from the Hubble Telescope. While looking at the images from the Hubble I thought that they didn’t look too different from a desert landscape found in Gold Butte or Mormon Mesa. I was able to take that program that they wrote and modify it to analyze aerial photographs of our beautiful desert. I am still trying to hammer out the best variables for the formulas but I have a pretty strong start.

So how does this all relate to gold Butte you may be wondering? Well the mesa is not that far from my house so it makes it an easy test ground to run my experiment and it is also adjacent to Gold Butte so once I get the rover running on the Mesa I can then send it out into the wilds of Gold Butte to start collecting data. What kind of data am I going to collect? All kinds of good stuff. Really anything you can think of there are sensors to detect and measure.  I will start with weather data and then add in elevation, slope, available light, wind and all kinds of other factors so I can start building a model to more accurately forecast and predict weather patterns on a microclimate level. I would like one day to be able to integrate the camera as well as an infrared camera to start being able to detect vegetation and write a detection and classification program to start classifying and quantifying vegetation and start building GIS data. I also have ideas for a habitat mapper\monitor\data gathers but I am already getting way ahead of myself.  I also would like to have the bot be able to explore and map abandoned mines. I have directional sensors, sonar, gas detection and other air quality sensors for this project.  In the mean time I am still dreaming things up so I will post my ideas as I make progress.