In an effort to create a robot that can teach itself to navigate different terrains, scientists at Arizona State University have built C-Turtle, a Raspberry Pi-powered autonomous cardboard robot with turtle flippers. This is excellent news for people who live in areas with landmines: C-Turtle is a great alternative to current landmine-clearing robots, since it is much cheaper, and much easier to assemble.
Why turtle flippers?
As any user of Python will tell you*, turtles are amazing. Moreover, as the evolutionary biologist of the C-Turtle team, Andrew Jansen, will tell you, considering their bulk** turtles move very well on land with the help of their flippers. Consequently, the team tried out prototypes with cardboard flippers imitating the shape of turtle flippers. Then they compared their performance to that of prototypes with rectangular or oval ‘flippers’. And 157 million years of evolution*** won out: the robots with turtle flippers were best at moving forward.
If it walks like a C-Turtle…
But the scientists didn’t just slap turtle flippers on their robot and then tell it to move like a turtle! Instead, they implemented machine learning algorithms on the Pi Zero that serves as C-Turtle’s brain, and then simply let the robot do its thing. Left to its own devices, it used the reward and punishment mechanisms of its algorithms to learn the most optimal way of propelling itself forward. And lo and behold, C-Turtle taught itself to move just like a live turtle does!
Landmine clearance with C-Turtle
Robots currently used to clear landmines are very expensive, since they are built to withstand multiple mine explosions. Conversely, the total cost of C-Turtle comes to about $70 (~£50) – that’s cheap enough to make it disposable. It is also more easily assembled, it doesn’t need to be remotely controlled, and it can learn to navigate new terrains. All this makes it perfect for clearing minefields.
Meet C-Turtle, the landmine detecting robot. VIDEO pic.twitter.com/Kjc6WxRC8I
— @bbcclick (@BBCClick) July 22, 2017
C-Turtles in space?****
The researchers hope that robots similar to C-Turtle can used for space exploration. They found that the C-Turtle prototypes that had performed very well in the sandpits in their lab didn’t really do as well when they were released in actual desert conditions. By analogy, robots optimized for simulated planetary conditions might not actually perform well on-site. The ASU scientists imagine that C-Turtle materials and a laser cutter for the cardboard body could be carried on board a Mars mission. Then Martian C-Turtle design could be optimized after landing, and the robot could teach itself how best to navigate real Martian terrain.
Congrats to Assistant Professors Heni Ben Amor and Daniel Aukes, and to the rest of the C-Turtle team, on their achievement! We at Pi Towers are proud that our little computer is part of this amazing project.
* Check out our Turtley amazing resource to find out why!
** At a length of 7ft, leatherback sea turtles can weigh 1,500lb!
*** That’s right: turtles survived the extinction of the dinosaurs!
**** Is anyone else thinking of Great A’Tuin right now? Anyone? Just me? Oh well.