Robots, Rats, and Landmines: A Love Story

Andrew McGregor’s mind works in mystical ways, generating ideas of which the most "Not Impossible" are the adorable robots that will map landmines. Welcome to the story of a chess-boxing champion and his "Piper"-bot.
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Andrew McGregor’s mind works in mystical ways, generating ideas of which the most "Not Impossible" are the adorable robots that will map landmines. Welcome to the story of a chess-boxing champion and his "Piper"-bot.

Andrew McGregor’s brain is a Rube Goldberg machine come to life. Everything the photojournalist/filmmaker/entrepreneur thinks up seems to set off another idea, in a chain reaction of humanitarian impulses. His journalism studies in college led him to teach students in Africa. Working in a Congolese refugee camp prompted him to think about landmines. A movie project about a cute robot named Piper that detects landmines inspired the idea of actually manufacturing Pipers in the real world. Along the way he started comics and film festivals and chess boxing and - well, why don’t we let him take you through the machinations of his mind. All in various stages of development, production, and testing. And all of them distinctly not impossible.

Let’s start at something like the beginning.

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Andrew: I was at USC’s graduate school for journalism. A lot of the focus of the program at the time was for people who wanted to be on or involved with television, and I believe that journalism should help the situation. The act of reporting should literally and tangibly benefit the people living where the stories are coming from. Plus, we now have all these new media tools and unprecedented global connectivity to enact such a vision.

So that’s when you became a war correspondent in Rwanda?

I filed the 501(c)3 paperwork in LA for The Tiziano Project, named after my journalism hero Tiziano Terzani (how I came to be connected to him is another story), put up a website articulating the vision, threw an inaugural fundraiser, and then flew to Kigali, Rwanda accompanied by two friends from my photojournalism class. We started by teaching photography at an orphanage there and then expanded to teaching radio in partnership with a German development organization, which had existing youth and education programs. The radio program was broadcast on Voice of America, reaching 14 million people. It was amazing. For example, one of the stories our former students did had a person whose parents were killed in the 1994 genocide in conversation with a person whose parents were incarcerated for crimes committed during the genocide, so they were both orphans and shared that anguish. Since the underlying ethos of Tiziano is collaborative journalism, the team would work doing their own reporting for conventional outlets that would usually be assisted by students who would often get work later, after being introduced to the various editors in the region. I was doing freelance photojournalism for the wire services (Reuters, AP, AFP, European Press Agency).

At the time, 200 dollars was half the average annual salary in Rwanda, and a lot of journalism and freelance media gigs would pay around that, so it’s a great way to do poverty alleviation through media training and education.

When was this?

That was 2007. We started in Kigali, Rwanda. One of our students suggested we work in Congo because of the great need there. We started working in the refugee camps around Goma, in the eastern part of DR Congo.

Is that when you started seeing the victims of landmines?

They’re interspersed. You see kids without a leg, and it strikes you. It’s difficult enough to be in a refugee camp in Congo, and then to have your leg blown off, it’s just one of those things that sticks. That’s something that shouldn’t exist.

How did your robot project evolve from there?

A few years after that, I was a judge on this thing called the Robot Film Festival, in New York. The ethos of the festival was showcasing benevolent human-machine interaction. One of their slogans is: What if Skynet loved us? That was a new idea for me. In addition to that, I was exposed to a lot of robotics technology, and I realized that robots are going through what computers went through, when they became things for the home, instead of these giant room-sized machines that only governments and universities had access to. There are now extremely affordable and accessible computers and microcontrollers, there is also now an open-sourced language for robots called ROS that is becoming more useful and widespread, and all of this is in addition to the maker movement that’s making robots very accessible. I was like huh, I wonder if we could address landmine issues.

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I’d heard about this organization called Apopo, which trains rats to detect landmines. So I was like, I wonder if we could have a little robot work with the rats, to help map a minefield. A lot of demining work is still a person with a stick and an animal and that person may get blown up after courageously exposing themselves to enough chances to be blown up.

It was kind of a mystical journey. I was like, I’m going to go for this. I met a lot of people on the way. One important conversation came after I met a guy who’s now a doctor from Caltech, who used to do demining work for the Israeli military. So I spoke to him, and he said, ‘You should focus on mapping; disarmament is this whole other hazardous thing. Focus on the maps so you know where it’s safe.’ I got a lot of advice, and I wrote a script for a short film to hopefully inspire engineers to work on the problem. The movie, “Where the Robot Things Are,” is a love story between a rat and a robot who guide a group of people in the middle of a mine field to safety.

Once I had the script, I took it to these guys who directed “Killer Clowns From Outer Space,” the Chiodo brothers. They also did the puppets for “Team America World Police.” I met them because I host a monthly film night at a gallery downtown called The Hive. We’d invited them in and mixed their sculptures with the presentation of their movies and work.

I went to them with my script and said, ‘Can you make me the most adorable machine in the world?’ They drew me the Piper, and I was like, all right, how do I make Piper to inspire engineers to work on this problem?

Piper-1.png

I posted something on Facebook and I got connected to the LA Robotics Club, founded by Annika O’Brien. I met with her, and I asked, is this even possible. She said, Of course. Then we hammered away on the prototype. I wanted it to be 3D printable. Because of my work with the Tiziano Project, I had this idea that if you send the printer somewhere with some instructions, you have all these wonderful job-creating tools. Then by providing and facilitating a robotics education it’s possible to teach how to build a robot to help with a community’s landmine problems. Piper would be a fantastic spearhead into economic and humanitarian opportunities and necessities.

Eventually, I met a producer who offered to produce the film, and she had done a lot of projects in Cambodia. When you think about it, a movie is like starting a business structurally. We had the two roboticists, the producer, and me the director, and I was like, we should just do it ourselves, so I turned it into an organization and company. It’s going. I think it will get there. I have that optimistic Spidey-businessman sense that it’s about to work in a big way.

How did Palisades Charter High School Robotics Club become involved?

I was acquainted with the school because they hosted the TEDxPacific Palisades event I founded and Donna Mandosa, who runs their Robotics Club, came to a chess boxing event so I knew her from that.

Hang on – chess boxing?

It’s like the name sounds; it’s alternating rounds of chess and boxing. You win by checkmate or knock out. I started practicing the sport as a therapy after being shell-shocked from what happened in Congo. In the process of doing it I realized we could have this great force for philanthropy, and so now it’s a community with regular fundraising events, where each fighter fights for an individual charity, and brings attention and money to their organization. My chessboxing moniker is ‘The Fightin’ Philanthropist.’

Okay, so you met Donna there.

I’m not sure if that’s where we met or if it was at one of the film festivals or possibly at a MindshareLA event, but our engineering and education conversations began at a chess boxing event, yes! Then I started Tedx Pacific Palisades. TEDx is a regional TED event. Her school hosted it. The robotics club is an after-school program. Their plan is do a Piper program next fall.

How are they going to work on Piper?

Robots tend to divide into problem sets - there’s the mapping component, the locomotion of it, the interaction with the rat - these are all engineering challenges. It’s essentially crowdsourcing the problems that Piper faces in being implemented in the field.

Piper is an adorable robot that can make maps and feed animals, so there’s a lot of applications I haven’t thought of that I’m sure students will in the future. I think if someone comes to Piper for the first time and understands this and can engage with the ethos of the design that can be an incredible and powerful thing. By helping students and enthusiasts contribute, it turns the act of engineering into an act of humanity.

What’s your next step?

We’re having Piper field-tested in Cambodia, hopefully within the next few months. So there are two Pipers right now: one prototype designed for use in the field in Cambodia, and an educational kit that can be built and understood by a motivated high school student.

We are planning a crowd funding campaign around the Piper-inspired educational kit to serve a dual function of encouraging people to help get land mines out of the ground and off the shelves, while providing the tools to learn job-creating skills and practice humanitarian robotics.

Who are you selling the kits to?

That will depend on how things unfold in the next few months. Since the Piper project is still in that nebular phase between prototype and rigorous field use, we have kits available now for organizations, people, or labs that want to contribute to Piper’s humanitarian mission and see its success.

Will the Apopo rats be involved?

Yes, the Pipers in Cambodia have to work with the rats.

How can readers help you further your project?

We are looking for organizational and sponsorship partnerships in addition to opportunities to teach courses on how to build a Piper, both to help the company flourish and to refine our curriculum and methodologies for our future plans of teaching in communities directly afflicted by land mines. Also, please sign up for our mailing list to stay informed and get involved. We can only achieve this vision as a community!

Where can they do that?

Through our website Symbiobotics.com.

What else you are working on?

We’re going to have more frequent chess boxing events that will be done by more people. I had a chess tournament with RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, in the middle of a jujitsu tournament a few months ago, put on by this organization called the Hip Hop Chess Federation, and from that we invented the new sport of chess jujitsu. I’m fusing it with the philanthropic nature of the LA Chessboxing Club so practitioners of jujitsu can compete and showcase their brilliance for charities of their choice. That event is January 17 in the South Bay at a gym called Systems Training Center. It’s the first time the sport has ever been done.

I’m also a screenwriter, so I’m working on a few movies in various stages of development and finishing editing a novel I wrote a few years ago. Then getting the film finished that started all the robotics stuff. I’m also opening a nonprofit bar with the brilliant business mind of Downtown LA’s unofficial Mayor, Barrett Morse. It’s going to be just like your local bar, except 70% of the revenue will go to local charities, 20% to national ones, and 10% to international ones. It’s called GoodBAR. Hopefully that will open in August.

I’ll probably be teaching journalism and activism on Skid Row, similar to the Tiziano Project. Depending on the people involved and nature of the stories, that will either be very public or very discreet.

I feel like if I keep asking what else you’re working on, you’ll keep answering.

I view life largely as a series of tasks or adventures…like the labors of Hercules but creative. Once a task is completed it then exists in the world as an institution where others can jam, contribute, and collaborate.

For more on the wonderful world of Andrew McGregor, visit his site at www.mightykingdrew.com or follow him on twitter @MightyKingDrew