The RoboHouse Interview Trilogy, part I: Christian Geckeler and the origami gripper

The first part of our RoboHouse Interview Trilogy: Robotics Engineer Work Life looking for Christian Geckeler. Christian is a PhD student at ETH Zürich’s Environmental Robotics Lab. He spoke to Rens van Poppel about the experience of flying high into the wilderness.

What if drones could help place sensors in forests more easily? What if a sensor device could automatically grab and hold a tree branch? What flexible materials are also strong and biodegradable? This leap of imagination led Christian to a new kind of gripper, inspired by the Japanese art of folding.

The origami design wraps around the tree branch close enough to trigger an unfolding movement. This discovery could in the future increase our insight into the hard-to-access forest canopy, in a way that is both environmentally friendly and enjoyable for human operators.

What is it like to work in the forest as a researcher with this technology?
“Robotic solutions used in forests are currently scarce,” said Christian. “So developing solutions for such environments is challenging, but also rewarding. Personally I also enjoy being outdoors. Compared to the laboratory, the jungle is wilder and more unpredictable. Which I think is great, except when it’s cold.

Is there a limit on where the gripper can be used?
“The gripper is quite versatile. Rather than the type of tree, it is the diameter and angle of the branch that determines whether the gripper attaches. Even so, dense foliage can get in the way of the drone, and there must be sufficient space for the gripper to attach.”

Christian Geckeler, PhD student at ETH Zürich’s Environmental Robotics Lab, a university of science and technology in Switzerland where around 530 professors teach around 20,500 students – including 4,100 doctoral students – from more than 120 countries.

Are the materials used environmentally friendly?
“Currently not all components are biodegradable, and the gripper will have to be collected again after sampling is complete. However, we are currently working on a fully biodegradable gripper, which detaches itself and drops to the ground after being exposed to a sufficient amount of water, which makes collection even easier.

How good of an outdoor life does an aspiring tree canopy researcher need?
“Everything is a learning process,” Christian said philosophically. “Rather than existing expertise, the willingness to learn and passion for the subject is much more important.”

What happens if the drone gets stuck in a tree?
“As a safety measure, the drone has a protective net on top which prevents leaves and branches from coming into contact with the propeller. And we avoid any interaction between the drone and the leaves, so this never happens.”

What surprised you when you took your gripper into the wild?
“Perhaps the most surprising thing is the great diversity found in nature; no two trees are the same and every branch is different. The only way to know if your solution is working is to test it outside as quickly and as often as possible.”

Christian ends with a note on the importance of social and technical interaction in robotics: “You might think you’re developing the perfect robot, but you have to make sure society really wants it and it’s easy to use for non-technically minded people too. ”

Post RoboHouse Interview Trilogy, Part I: Christian Geckeler and The Origami Gripper appeared the first time Robot House.

Rens van Poppel

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