Arushi Nath, 10 years

I recently participated in the Elle Hacks 2020 held at York University, Canada from 31 Jan – 2 February 2020. Elle Hacks is a student-run hackathon for girls, women and non-binary individuals of all experience levels. The participants were given STEM-related challenges which they had to solve in teams within a given time and later present it to the judges.

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Getting ready for presentation and demo of my project

I love participating in hackathons and have attended over 35 hackathons so far. My first hackathon was in 2014 when I was only 5 years old. It was the NASA SpaceApps Challenge 2014 which I participated as my family team: HotPopRobot. We ended up winning the NASA SpaceApps Toronto and emerging among the Top 5 globally for our Mars Rover: the Curious Bot. The experience encouraged me to participate in many more hackathons. My favorite ones are space, environment and hardware related.

Elle Hacks was a very different hackathon for me. It was for the first time I stayed overnight on my own. As the organizers, mentors, and volunteers were super friendly and the event was very organized it was a wonderful experience.

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Making friends at Elle Hack 2020!

I talked to many people and made many friends over 3 days and 2 nights while working on my challenge. Being able to stay overnight meant I could participate in many of the fun activities such as cup stacking and a scavenger hunt.

My Idea: Dragonflies and Neurons 

I recently watched a TED Talks Video: How a dragonfly’s brain is designed to kill by neuroscientist Greg Gage on Dragonflies. Greg Gage is the co-founder of the organization: Backyard Brains which encourages students to mix biology with technology.

In the video, I learned that the Dragonfly is the best killer in the animal kingdom. It has an accuracy rate of 97% in catching its prey such as houseflies and small insects.

This information really surprised me because who would think that an animal so small could be the best killer. Normally we would think of a tiger, a shark or even an eagle. How can a dragonfly catch its prey so accurately?

I learned it has something to do with neurons. So I searched for more information about neurons and how they operate. Neurons are cells that can transmit and receive information from one part of the body to the other. Just the human brain has over 86 billion neurons. However, the dragonfly has only 16 neurons!

The small number of neurons actually makes it operate faster. I wanted to learn more and see if I can make a small project about it. I believe the best way to learn a new subject is to make a project about it.

The Dragonfly Bot

I decided that Dragonfly Bot was the project I would make during the Elle Hacks. While it did not fall into any specific challenge but it was still related to STEM and hacking and a fun project.

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Side view of the Dragonfly bot with servos to act as wings

I did some more research on Dragonfly. It has 8 neurons on each side. I found that if the dragonfly sees its prey coming from the left-hand side then the 8 neurons on the left will get activated. They will send a signal to the wings of the dragonfly to move towards the left and catch the prey. And if the prey is coming from the right-hand side, then the 8 right side neurons will get activated and the dragonfly will fly right to catch the prey.

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Front view of the Dragonfly Bot with Light Sensors acting as eyes

Very interestingly, from the video, the size of the prey mattered too. As dragonfly is small in size it does not want to catch an insect bigger than its size. The neurons of the dragonfly give the strongest signals when their eyes see prey of smaller size. The signals become weaker when the size of the insect it is seeing is big.

This was so cool and I wanted to build a robotic dragonfly that can do the same thing!

The Making for Dragonfly Bot: Arduino and Sensors

I always bring a hardware kit to all my hackathon events. They include Arduinos, sensors, breadboards, wires and a tool kit.

First I made a sketch of what I wanted my robot to look like and do. This allowed me to have a better idea of what parts would I need, how long it would take to build and what kind of coding I would need to do.

Parts Used: Arduino, 2 Light Sensors, 2 50 Kiloohms resistors, 2 mini servos, breadboard, and wires. For the body of my robot, I used a soft drink can!

Step 1: I used the 2 light sensors to replicate the left and right side-eyes of the dragonfly. Each light sensor had to be attached to a resistor which in turn was attached to the Arduino. These light sensors acted as inputs to detect the prey.

Step 2: I connected the 2 servos to the Arduino. These servos took the input from the light sensors and produced an output- namely the movement of the left and the right wings.

Step 3: I attached all the parts to the soft drink can. All the wiring was connected through the Breadboard which was also attached to the can.

Step 4: Now was the time to start programming my robot. I used a Servo library for controlling the wings. I used the Analog Read Serial code to get data from the light sensors. When the light fell on the light sensors, their resistance dropped and when the light was blocked its resistance went up. This allowed the robot to track from which direction a prey is coming from. If the prey is coming from the left then the left side sensor resistance would go up and through Arduino, it would trigger the left-hand side servo.

Similarly, when the prey came from the right side, it would block the right side sensor and activate the right side servo.

Step 5: It was now time for me to test my code and see if it compiled well. It did! I uploaded the code to the Arduino.

My project was ready! I brought an object in front of the dragonfly bot from the right-hand side and it immediately moved the right-hand side wide. I then brought the object from the left-hand side and it moved the left-hand side wing.

The Presentation and Demo

I worked on this project for 2 days and was very happy with the results. It was nice to be able to build a working robot after coming up with an idea just a day before.

To prepare myself for the presentation of my project, I created a few slides using PowerPoint about my Dragonfly idea, how I made it and how it worked.

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Presenting my project to one of the judges

On the last day, we were assigned rooms where we would demonstrate and explain our project to the judges. It was a wonderful experience. Four judges came to my table. They listened to my presentation, watched the demo and asked questions.

Some of the questions they asked were on the programming language I used, how I got the idea, and what was the most challenging part of my project. As I made everything from the beginning, it was easy for me to answer all the questions.

It was also a good opportunity to see projects made by other people and learn from them.

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Answering questions about my Dragonfly project

From here to where?

I plan to keep improving my dragonfly project by using Logic Gates. The robot will then be able to perform more complex tasks and also more accurately.

Participation in Elle Hacks 2020 was an amazing experience. I thank all the organizers, volunteers, mentors, judges and other participants for their encouragement, support and all the food and drinks provided during the hackathon.

I look forward to participating and even volunteering for Elle Hacks 2021!

You can follow my other projects at http://www.twitter.com/wonrobot

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