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The Julius project

Building autonomous kayaks for science and exploration.

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The Julius project is an attempt to determine whether "end-of-life" white water kayaks can provide a suitable, low cost, platform on which to build an autonomous vehicle capable of undertaking scientific research and exploration missions.

Autonomous boats are still either expensive, or cheap but patched together hobby projects. We want to provide the building blocks to enable any organisation or person to take the electronics and software, find a suitable body and be up and running as easily as possible.

Why Kayaks?
Well, for one thing - there are a lot of cheap used ones around. When you don't care about the seats and pads, and only whether it floats then you can grab a bargain.

Second - there are a lot of styles targeted at specific types of water, so you can pick or switch to the most suitable for your needs at the time.

Inspiration

For an upcoming expedition we need to survey relatively shallow waters and coastline. Parts of the coast are too shallow to use even a small ROV like the OpenROV or even to snorkel - so we needed a vehicle with a shallow draft that would also be stable enough to handle small waves.

Existing technology

There are, admittedly, quite a few autonomous marine vehicles around at the moment. A lot of them are very expensive and out of reach of small organisations and individuals. Some are a lot cheaper, but are aimed at ocean crossings or long journeys where large waves and the threat of being overturned mean that a deep draft or keel are required.

We needed something with a shallow draft that was capable of hugging the coast.

Why Kayaks?

There are a lot of Kayaks available specifically designed to handle different types of water - from flat bottomed white-water kayaks that are capable of turning sharply, through to longer sea kayaks more suited to travelling in long straight lines quickly.

Because of the popularity of kayaking as a hobby, there are a lot of older, end of life, kayaks available to purchase cheaply on places like Facebook and eBay.

As we aren't concerned with the condition of the seats or outfitting, then we can pick up perfectly capable Kayaks that others might not consider.

Why Raspberry Pi?

The Raspberry Pi is an extremely low cost, yet very capable computer - the Raspberry Pi Zero even more so. A lot of people already own at least one, and schools tend to own a few for educational use.

It made sense to use something that a lot of people would be familiar with. Whilst there are existing autopilot boards available, some of them open source, for a lot of sensor recording and reading - a Pi or similar would be needed anyway.

Modular approach

Not all waterways are the same, and not all survey missions have the same conditions. Sometimes you may need something that can keep a straight line easily, other times something that can turn quickly to get around a rocky coastline.

By keeping all of the electronics in a self-contained unit, we hope to be able to simply swap the body of Julius to best suit the surveys that need to be done.

Placing him in a 13-15 foot long sea kayak with a skeg will help with long straight line surveys, but remove the ability to make tight turns.

Wheras placing him in a 6 foot white water kayak means that he will be able to turn very quickly to follow a winding or rocky coastline, but not have as much straight line speed or be able to handle larger waves.

Open source

To the best of our ability, everything we use, write or build will be open sourced. By the end of this project we aim to have a detailed Bill of Materials, designs for new hardware and assembly instructions so that anyone interested will be able to build, and hopefully improve on, the Julius system.

  • 1 × Old White Water Kayak Condition of the outfitting / internals isn't important - as long as it floats and has few (or better yet, no) dents, deep cuts or welds.
  • 2 × Propellers We're using BlueRobotics T100 properllers
  • 1 × Raspberry Pi To Keep things cheap, we're using a Raspberry Pi for processing and control
  • 1 × Motor Controller We developed our own controller for ESC powered motors call the ESCAPE board

  • A little bit of processing

    Barry Getty10/03/2016 at 19:50 0 comments

    We've been working on the video footage taken from the Kayak over the Manchester weekend - our first pass dense point cloud of lock 89 is below.

  • Manchester Waterside Festival

    Barry Getty09/24/2016 at 19:52 0 comments

    I've still got a lot of video and images to process, but I've started to put together some clips from the Manchester Waterside Festival.

    We ran Julius without a tether for the weekend and he performed very well - we managed to get some above water footage with the GoPro camera and quite a bit of underwater footage with the 360 degree camera. Though as we were operating in a canal, it was a bit murky - I'll have to see what can be pulled out of it.

    Above

    Below

  • See Julius in Manchester

    Barry Getty09/08/2016 at 10:24 0 comments

    We'll be in Manchester (the UK one) this weekend (10th and 11th September 2016) and we'll be taking Julius with us, so if you are in the area then pop along and say hello.

    There are free events along the canal all weekend - we'll even show you how to build and pilot a Lego underwater robot.

    More details are here: http://www.for9.org.uk/

  • Neater cabling and more

    Barry Getty09/06/2016 at 21:51 2 comments

    A lot of work has taken place since the last update.

    We now have the motor wiring going through the bottom of the hull using some Blue Robotics hull connectors - this makes things a lot neater and removes the motor wiring that was wrapped around the outside of the Kayak.

    We've also, momentarily, switched to using a Raspberry Pi 3 so we can take advantage of the on-board WiFi. We may yet switch back to a Pi Zero, we'll be running some tests to determine suitability.

    The batteries ( two 3S LiPo battery packs ) are currently in the same box as the electronics, we're going to switch them to their own box in the near future.

    We're now running a custom build of the Ardupilot software ( the Ardurover version ) and have everything communicating with the ground control software over WiFi. The initial test run of the new software went well, though we need more manual control practice.

    We're waiting for a connector for our external GPS antenna to arrive and then it'll be time to head to a larger body of water for autonomous testing.

  • New batteries - tethered test

    Barry Getty08/12/2016 at 09:57 0 comments

    The very first test of Julius ended abruptly due to the batteries not being powerful enough, so we went away and ordered some better batteries.

    Last weekend, with new batteries on-board, we took Julius to a nearby river for a quick test under manual control. We decided to keep him tethered to the shore as we weren't sure of the power or duration of the new batteries and, also, because we just didn't have the time to bring another Kayak to recover him in case of failure.

    The short video of the test is below - we need to calibrate the ESCs as, at the moment, he travels a lot faster in reverse than forwards - and one motor is running a little bit faster.

    The next test will be with GPS and Ardupilot installed.

  • GPS antenna location

    Barry Getty07/08/2016 at 21:53 0 comments

    The external GPS antenna will attach to the back of the kayak with a strong magnet inside the kayak holding it in place.

  • Motors connected and leak test

    Barry Getty07/08/2016 at 21:51 0 comments

    Time for attaching the propellers ready for the first wet test.

    Wiring for the motors will wrap around the outside of the kayak for now - as soon as we get the through hull connectors we can shorten the wires and send them through the bottom to keep the sides as clean as possible.

    And then it's a matter of filling the Kayak with water to make sure we don't have any leaks :)

  • Motor connection wiring

    Barry Getty07/07/2016 at 22:13 0 comments

    Unfortunately a delivery we were expecting didn't arrive, so we had to improvise the motor connections and wrap the cabling around the top of the kayak in order to get some testing done.

    Thankfully we can use these wires and connections again when we make the wiring more permanent ( and drill some more holes in the bottom of the Kayak ).

  • Electronics box wiring

    Barry Getty07/04/2016 at 20:59 0 comments

    We took a drill to the waterproof case we're using for the electronics to fit some Bulgin 400 series IP68 connectors.

    We added four connectors to this case - two 3 wire connectors for the brushless motors, a 2 wire connector so we can have an external power supply for the case and an 8 wire connector for extra sensors / other things.

    We need to sort out the wiring, and check if the Raspberry Pi Zero is powerful enough to run everything, but at least it fits easily so far.

    The Orange motor control board is our custom ESC and servo control board called the ESCAPE board - which is currently on KickStarter -

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/shrkey/dark-control-robot-controllers-for-the-raspberry-p

  • There's a hole in my kayak

    Barry Getty07/02/2016 at 21:18 0 comments

    After stripping and cleaning it's time to mark the propeller positions and drill the mounting holes.

    Next step is to fill a relatively deep scratch with epoxy - shouldn't need to, but just in case and await the delivery of the rubber sheets to go between the propeller mount and the body.

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