Mexican students put their aquatic cleaning robots to the test

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Last month, Mexican engineering students gathered in Puebla to participate in the 4th Mexican Cleaning Robot Contest (Torneo Mexicano de Robots Limpiadores). The robots competed in two categories: the â''Coke can fetching categoryâ'' (photo above) and the "mine retrieving category". The goal was to investigate ways to collect garbage dumped in terrestrial and aquatic environments -- a problem that unfortunately is way too common not only in Mexico but in many other places. In fact, if these prototypes become products one day, I'd love to send one to my hometown, Sao Paulo, in Brazil, to help clean the ultrapolluted Pinheiros and Tiete rivers.

Here's a video and also a report from the organizers.

4th Mexican Cleaning Robot Contest (Torneo Mexicano de Robots Limpiadores)

By Angélica Muñoz (Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Ã'ptica y Electrónica), V. Angélica García (Universidad Veracruzana), Héctor S. Vargas (Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla), Héctor G. Acosta (Universidad Veracruzana), and C. Rubén de la Mora (Universidad Veracruzana)

The goal of the Mexican Cleaning Robot Contest (MCRC) is to investigate solutions to the garbage collection and end-disposal problems. This contest focuses in designing and building cleaning robot prototypes capable of collecting garbage in terrestrial and aquatic environments.

The MCRC was born in 2004, as an alternative to the increasing number of robot contests focused on purely recreational tasks, such as sumo or robot battles. The MCRC organizers hope to convey two important messages often neglected in recreational robot contests. First, roboticists are interested in solving problems in the real world, and second, robots are lasting, useful machines.

Every year, Mexican undergraduates and graduate students from around the country are invited to participate in the ongoing MCRC held in an academic institution. The MCRC challenge is to design, build and program an original robot able to autonomously solve a specific problem.

Challenges change every year, but one aspect remains the same: the robots need to use simple tools and equipment such as those found in standard robotics laboratories in any Mexican public university or college. Previous challenges included retrieving specific objects and classifying such objects in organic and inorganic types. In both cases, tasks were performed within a test environment of two square meters.

Perhaps the most challenging task so far has been to retrieve garbage in aquatic environments. In this category, robots had to retrieve an engine oil spillage during the contestâ''s 2004 edition, and floating squash balls in 2005, both inside a water filled fish-tank 1 m by 1.5 m on its sides and 0.5 m high.

Late last month, the 4th MCRC took place in Puebla, a city located 135 km southeast of Mexico City. In this yearâ''s event, contenders faced two challenges. The first one was to retrieve as many as possible floating Coke cans from a cylindrical swimming pool 3.66 m in diameter and 0.80 m in height in 10 minutes. In such scenario, two robots had to perform the task simultaneously during each round. Each robot had a storage ring of a specific color.

Five robot prototypes were registered for the Coke can fetching category. Proud owners and robots from distant corners of Mexico arrived at Puebla a couple of days before the beginning of the event. Three out of five registered robot prototypes were of the "greedy robots" type. That is, robots with hollow bodies or openings on their surfaces that enable them to retrieve objects without direct contact.

Of the remaining â''non-greedyâ'' robots, one was an anthropomorphic prototype equipped with a CCD camera and a 3DOF gripper. The other robot was equipped with a rotating claw mechanism. A "greedy-robot" was the simplest and cheapest prototype of all. This was a proto-board mounted in a polystyrene platform. Simplicity won the day, as this robot was the remarkable, unbeatable winner of the Coke can fetching category.

The second challenge of this yearâ''s contest was to identify and retrieve â''mines.â'' These were represented by floating squash balls tied with strings of various lengths at the bottom of the fish-tank. This was by far the most complex challenge ever presented to MCRC contenders, and this complexity reflected on the number of contenders registered for this category. Only one team presented a functional prototype. This robot was equipped with a rotating razor at the bottom of its structure. It performed well at low speeds.

The MCRC has been widely welcomed and has been a great success in Mexico. For more information about the MCRC, visit: http://ccc.inaoep.mx/~torneo-de-robot/

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