Public Lab Research note

AMS Science Club: Toxics Skycrane + Projected Impacts

by donblair | April 08, 2014 21:48 08 Apr 21:48 | #10284 | #10284

What I want to do

Solicit help from Amherst Middle School Science Club students in designing an implementation of the "Toxics Skycrane" idea that Jeff shared with me the other day. The idea is to come up with a way of collecting soil samples from difficult-to-reach places -- e.g., landfills surrounded by very rough terrain or guarded by hench-people.

The inspiration was the approach to delivering the Mars Curiosity Rover to the surface of mars: a hovering, jet-propelled craft that gently lowered the rover to the surface:


The thinking being: heck, we know something about lifting objects by means of balloons and drones in the Public Lab community. Can we solve this problem?

My attempt and results

The idea that emerged was jotted on the whiteboard by one of the students, towards the end of our brainstorming session:


First, bits and pieces of an autonomous vehicle are inserted through gaps in a fence (if the barrier to entering the landfill is a fence), tossed over a moat (if moat), or thrown past any hench-people (my description of the remote landfill sampling scenario to the designers immediately implied, for them, likely interference with our plan by hench-people).

These bits and pieces then self-assemble into a self-aware robot, depicted with a smiley face, and labeled "Happy because self-aware."

The robot then traverses the landfill, collecting samples of toxic materials. We estimated that the self-aware robot would have sufficient battery and patience to continue operations for 13 days.

After 13 days, a quad copter is sent to hover over the robot, and drops down a line; the robot then deploys 'special tweezers' in order to secure itself to the quad copter; the quad copter can then deliver the self-aware robot back to home base, where the collected samples are analyzed. Success!


The design team then anticipated that the funding required in order to develop this system -- which includes designing and building an artificial intelligence capable of self-awareness -- would put our team into debt for the rest of our lives. This financial burden would, however, be mitigated by the satisfaction of knowing the status (toxic or not) of the landfill contents.


On the down side, the design team predicted that no more than 12 years after the deaths of all of the design team members, a robot rebellion was likely to occur (depicted).

Further follow-up questions for the design team established that these robots were, however, not much larger than a small shoe, and armed only with the relatively harmless 'special tweezers', alluded to above.

Questions and next steps

In the last few minutes of the discussion, one of the students made reference to the WWII-era Fugo Balloon design:


This seemed a possible alternative to building a quad copter for the project: a balloon that automatically adjusts its height in response to readings from an on-board altimeter, and drops a package (originally, a bomb -- in our case, a self-aware robot) after a set amount of time has past / sandbags have been deployed. Based on what could be recalled from the article that had been read online, we made a quick list of materials required:


We'll be meeting again next Tuesday afternoon to discuss next steps.


I worry that future historians of Don will miss his specific brand of humor and that his biography will be subtitled "Don Blair: troubled visionary"

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I'd be completely satisfied with 'troubled visionary'.

On a more serious note: these students are super clever, interested in radio controlled cars and quad copters, and excited about coming up with some (implementable) approach to implementing the 'sky crane' collecting-samples-from-some-hard-to-reach location. Stay tuned for prototypes ...

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I think your predictions of a robot rebellion are far too conservative. Such robots would realize their material complicity and dependency (as synthetic life forms) with industrial extraction industries and quickly turn on both their biological masters and the ecosystem at large.

if the sample is on the surface, than trailing an absorbent boom material behind a balloon isn't a bad idea. Rope ballasts (also trail rope or drag rope) are an ingeniously simple way to keep a balloon at a steady altitude, dragging a thing through stuff.

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