Westmount grad building hitchhiking robot in his basement
By Mark Newman, News Staff
It’s a summer job Colin Gagich will never forget.
The 19-year-old mechatronics engineering and management student at McMaster University is building HitchBOT, a nearly three-foot tall robot, in the basement of his west Mountain home.
HitchBOT is slated to begin hitchhiking across Canada form Halifax to Victoria on July 27.
“I’m having a fantastic time,” said the Westmount graduate.
Gagich, along with Burlington resident and fellow Mac student Dominik Kaukinen, are technically research assistants on the project that was conceived by David Harris Smith, an assistant professor in the department of communication studies and multimedia at McMaster, and with Frauke Zeller, an assistant professor in the school of professional communication at Ryerson University.
“I don’t know what a typical (research assistant) job is like, but it it’s definitely not like this,” said Gagich.
Harris Smith noted the project is collective effort involving artists, engineers, scientists and technologists.
“A lot of people are hopeful and interested and excited about (the project),” said Harris Smith, who also sees the journey as a social experiment.
Harris Smith said the project is akin to putting a message in a bottle and tossing it in the ocean.
“We’re going to look where it might land next,” he said.
The robot, which does not move except for its arms, will essentially be thumbing for a ride. His creators hope curious motorists will stop and pick up the lightweight HitchBOT and help it along its journey of nearly 4,500 kilometres.
“If I saw a hitchhiking robot gesturing at me, I might pull over and if it talks to me, I’d be delighted,” Harris Smith said.
Meanwhile, Gagich, who figures he has spent more than 200 hours working on HitchBOT since February, is no stranger to robots. He helped build an R2-D2 robot from the Star Wars movies two years ago while attending Westmount.
Gagich said HitchBOT is the result of a trip or two to a home improvement store, a department store and an automotive supply store.
The hard plastic base comes from a toddler’s car seat, copper tubing forms the arms and legs, the main body is a five-gallon metal beer cooler, all topped off by a hard plastic cake cover. The arms are covered by pool noodles made of foam and the hands are plastic gloves.
Gagich noted all the inexpensive parts should make HitchBOT weather-resistant.
“A beer cooler is watertight,” he said. “I saw it and (thought) it would be crazy to use a beer cooler for it.”
While HitchBOT might look like a large garbage can on the outside, the inside contains a complex system of electronics ands voice recognition software that will enable it to speak and record conversations with the public and take photographs.
“It will ask permission to take pictures,” said Gagich, who noted HitchBOT will also be Tweeting and posting to Facebook.
There may be a problem getting through Quebec as HitchBOT is not bilingual.
The robot contains an LED unit on the top (protected by the cake cover) that will light up and display messages or images like smiley faces.
Solar panels wrapped around the body will power the batteries inside HitchBOT, which also has a GPS unit and has a cellular connection so Gagich and company can track its progress.
The public can follow HitchBOT’s journey via hitchbot.me.