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Turtle robot draws Nazca line-inspired artworks on the beach

A beach robot creates large-scale sand drawings autonomously, sent to it wirelessly via an app.

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Beachbot

Visit the beach, and you'll usually see visitors constructing architecture made of sand, either elaborate or simple (my personal favourite was coiling dragons with seashell scales). But some artists -- such as Tony Plant and Andres Amador -- use the sand as a vast canvas for giant, transient works scraped with a rake, disappearing when the tide washes the sand clean.

A new robot developed by a team of engineers at ETH Zurich and Disney Research Zurich's Paul Beardsley would allow anyone to become a beach artist. Called Beachbot, the robot -- with a rather charming turtle's head -- is optimised for creating large drawings in sandy environments.

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Beachbot

There are several key components to this. The physical robot is designed to withstand sand, with a closed aluminium chassis and sealing lips to keep the fine grains from getting inside the machinery. Three puffy "balloon" wheels allow the robot to move easily on the sand, while leaving minimal tracks, and the rake dragged behind the robot has seven moving parts, controlled by servos, to control the thickness of the line it makes.

The software is where it gets really interesting.

In order to be able to plot the image on the ground, the robot needs to be able to accurately gauge its location in space. Rather than a GPS, it uses a system more like robotic vacuum cleaners: reflective poles mark out the corners of the "canvas", detected by a laser scanner mounted on the robot. It then uses depth sensing and inertial measurement unit to determine its position within that canvas, keeping the drawing accurate.

The robot can either be preprogrammed with drawings, sent to it via an app; or controlled via a "free drawing" manual mode, which effectively turns the sand into a sketchbook. Just who will be controlling and programming the robot is unclear, although we think it unlikely that it will be open to the public, given the public's penchant for phallic humour.

"The robot will be deployed at a public beach to amaze beachgoers who pass by. Not only the final picture is important, the whole drawing process will provide an exceptional, magical show," the team wrote. "The BeachBot is not just a lifeless, mechanical being; it is a friendly looking creature with a soul."