The story behind the cameras: filming robots

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In 2013, just as I was finishing my Masters in Science Communication at UWE Bristol, I was asked to help film the euRathlon robotics competition in Germany. euRathlon was inspired by the situation that officials were faced with after the nuclear accident in Fukushima in 2011. The competition challenges robotics engineers to solve the problems of dealing with an emergency scenario, pushing innovation and creativity in the robotics domain. The project is led by Prof. Alan Winfield from UWE alongside seven other partner institutions. The 2015 euRathlon competition in Piombino, Italy combined land, sea and air challenges for the robots to overcome. Our 2015 film team included three of us (Josh Hayes Davidson on graphics, Charlie Nevett on camera and myself – Tim Moxon – as producer and sound engineer), taking with us all the lessons I learned from 2013.

Filming robots, particularly complex robots designed to respond to emergency scenarios, is a daunting task. Trying to make sure that we didn’t get too technical was always going to be a problem. We had the additional issue that English was not the first language of most of the people being interviewed which really added to the challenge. Taking care and with plenty of re-shoots we managed to get round both of the problems by sticking to the golden rules: take it slow and keep it simple. This made sure that we never lost sight of what we were trying to do. Our focus was always to bring 21st century robotics into the public eye.Picture 2

The first two days of the competition presented the individual land, sea and air trials. On site we first created two “meet the teams” films where we interviewed all 16 teams and got to know them. Luckily they were all super friendly and very cooperative which meant we got all the teams interviewed in two days. After that the real work began. The land trials were easy enough to film and get a good story line of shots as the robots were almost always visible.  However the underwater robots required a bit more imagination. In the end a GoPro on a piece of drift wood got us the shots we needed.


The aerial robots had some issues too as getting long distance shots was not always easy. Fortunately Josh and Charlie were more than up to the task.

Day 3 and 4 focused on combining two domains, so land and sea or air and land etc. Day 3 went well with fantastic interviews with judges and teams helping to really give some depth to the videos. Again underwater proved to be a bit challenging but we managed, with the help of some footage given to us by the teams that they took on-board their robots. Day 4 didn’t go as well as the second half of the competition had to be cancelled due to strong winds. Wind had been an issue throughout the competition and all of our equipment required regular cleaning to keep the dust out, as well as dealing with constant wind when recording sound.

That day however you could barely stand in the open for all the dust and sand being kicked up by the wind and getting good sound for interviews was nearly impossible. We could only hope that the weather improved for the Grand Challenge.

The final days were the Grand Challenge, as much for us filming as for those competing. The timescale was starting to tighten as we only had two days to film, cut and polish the remaining two videos. With increasing pressure to produce high quality products we pulled out all the stops. Fortunately all the teams rose to the occasion and provided us with some spectacular on-board footage as well as some nice underwater diver footage. The Grand Challenge turned out to be a great success with all the teams at least competing even if they didn’t all finish the challenge.

Tim Moxon completed the UWE Bristol Masters in Science Communication in 2013.

For more information about EuRathlon please visit the project website.

What I learnt working with robots, children and animals

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Put two robotics researchers in a small room with a bad tempered snake, 30 children and a zoologist. And make sure everyone learns something and enjoys themselves.

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That was the goal of a recent SCU-led project called ‘Robots vs Animals,’ a collaboration with Bristol Zoo Gardens education unit and Bristol Robotics Laboratory, with funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering. I’ll admit that was not how the project was originally defined, but it was the situation I found myself in as project coordinator last March.

The snake was a grumpy Columbian rainbow boa called Indigo, who was supposed to be demonstrating energy efficiency in the animal kingdom. The researchers were specialists on Microbial Fuel Cells, a system that can convert organic matter into electricity. They work on highly innovative designs that get power from urine – but only a small amount at a time, hence the need for energy efficiency. The kids were 12 and 13 year olds from a local school who were learning about biomimicry and seeing the cutting edge applications of science and maths. In this project I think I learnt as much about public engagement as they did about robots.

  1. Make contact.

Zoo 25th Nov2014 30I mean human, skin contact. It’s an old chestnut of engagement, but it proved itself once again. Even when bits of equipment broke – or were broken before we even started – the audiences really appreciated getting to hold and touch things themselves. This applied as much to the wires, switches and circuit boards of the robots as the cuddly and creepy animals. A ‘robot autopsy’ (bits and bobs from the scrap bin at the Lab) went down a storm in a Bristol primary school and a Pint of Science pub quiz. Watching school students handle a Nao robot as carefully as a baby was a project highlight for me and featured strongly in their positive feedback.

  1. Keep contact.

I was physically based in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory for the duration of the project, and it made a huge difference being around the researchers outside of our meetings and in between emails. I could get a much better sense of their projects, interests and personalities by seeing them every week, even if I theoretically could have coordinated the project from the SCU offices on the other side of the campus. Being around also helped to give the project a higher profile inside a busy, hard-working research lab where time for public engagement is limited.

  1. Have contacts.
Jade Duggan
Photo credit: Jade Duggan

The project evolved from its main focus of classes at Bristol Zoo Gardens to include a short film with a local science centre, talks and stalls at public events and even a teacher training seminar. Being able to say ‘yes’ to opportunities as they arose from different quarters is a luxury that not all projects can afford, but I found it was important to stay open to opportunities as the project developed. Attention to how the project outputs are worded in the first place helps, so does listening carefully to the needs of participants and interested parties and having a great project manager (thanks Laura Fogg Rogers!).

 

So how did all of that help with an irascible snake, excitable kids and nervous researchers? Firstly, Zoo staff quickly went to find a snake that would be more amenable to being stroked, to allow for first contact. I attended the session alongside the researchers even though they were leading it. This meant I could give feedback and support, and had the honour of watching as they became more skilled and relaxed. Having seen how they kept their nerve with the uncivil serpent, I knew I could rely on those researchers to handle other difficult situations – like appearing in front of a camera when the opportunity arose. Finally, when we had the chance to showcase their research at another event, we made use of our contacts and took the docile cockroaches with us rather than Indigo the snake.

@robotsvsanimalsRobot and animals for web small

Corra Boushel is a project coordinator in the Science Communication Unit. Robots vs Animals was supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious Awards. Thanks to the Science Communication Unit and Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of the West of England and Bristol Zoo Gardens.

No snakes were harmed during this project.