Maker Family Builds Museum Quality Mars Rover

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Maker Family Builds Museum Quality Mars Rover
Beatty girls get their rover ready at NYSCI.
Photo Credit: Andrew Terranova

It may seem extraordinary that a man and his two young daughters would end up providing the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) with a replacement robot for their Mars rover exhibit. The full story is even more interesting, and an inspiration for young makers and parents.

Although Robert Beatty graduated from Michigan State University with a mechanical engineering degree and had run his own software company, he had never made anything like a robot and had no electronics experience. When his elder daughter Camille, then 11 years old, asked if they could build a robot, Robert was uncertain. Camille’s 9 year-old-sister Genevieve chimed in, “I want to build a robot, too!” Camille wanted to build a robot from the animated series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”, a show she really liked. Robert agreed they could try.

They started out knowing very little. Camille described it as going “blind through the tunnel.” They built their first robot. Then they built another… and another. They learned everything they needed from the internet. They bought and made tools, including a homemade CNC to create their own metal parts. They made mistakes and learned from them. They created a website, Beatty Robotics, to post their projects for friends and family. People began to take notice.

When Samuel Litt and Kelley Peregoy were looking to update the Mars rover exhibit at NYSCI, they came across the Beatty’s website. The family had made a robot that was designed to look like the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The rover, which they called “Spirit II”, was scaled down and not a perfect replica, but looked great. Kelley contacted the Beattys and asked if they could make one for the museum.

“The original rovers from our exhibit lasted a long time, longer than the actual Spirit rover on Mars,” Kelley told me. “They were a bit outdated and needed to be replaced.” Getting the replacements from a family of robot hobbyists instead of an experienced professional or developing them in-house was a gutsy move, but it paid off.

Robert, Camille, and Genevieve Beatty with their rover at NYSCI Photo Credit: Andrew Terranova
Robert, Camille, and Genevieve Beatty with their rover at NYSCI
Photo Credit: Andrew Terranova

The Beattys had to raise the level of their game for this build. “Most of our robots break from time to time and need repair,” said Camille. “We knew we were making a robot for a children’s museum.” It would be used by children, and had to be reliable. Still, they were motivated by the idea of making something that would inspire other children.

Genevieve, who is a bit shy compared to her outspoken older sister, does 95 percent of the soldering. If Camille or Robert solder without her she complains, “You soldered without me?” Genevieve also likes using their CNC, and creating miniature versions of the robots they make. “It’s become a bit of a thing,” said Camille. “First we make the robot big, then we make a mini version.”

Genevieve soldering the wires onto the rover’s motors
Photo Credit: Beatty Robotics

Camille enjoys actually building the robots, and does most of the assembly work. She also enjoys machining parts on their miniature vertical mill, and designing and cutting parts on the CNC. “The mini mill is good for modifying parts,” Camille says. “If we need to make a part from scratch, we use the CNC.”

Camille working on the Mars rover in the workshop
Photo Credit: Beatty Robotics

Now aged 13 and 10, respectively, Camille and Genevieve attend the Carolina Day School in Asheville, N.C.. “The school likes to go with different perspectives,” Camille tells me. “Last year they did a program on Lego Mindstorms. We do presentations and work on public speaking.” Camille’s presentation skills are excellent. Genevieve is more shy, but lights up when she gets into her subject.

Both kids are obviously working at a level well past Lego Mindstorms already. They explained their story to an appreciative group of NYSCI visitors this past Saturday at NYSCI. Their father gave the girls the spotlight; Camille did most of the talking while he ran a slideshow from his laptop.

Genevieve takes her turn explaining her role in building the rover. Photo Credit: Andrew Terranova
Genevieve takes her turn explaining her role in building the rover.
Photo Credit: Andrew Terranova

In addition to the current Mars rover, which NYSCI dubbed “Camille”, the family is building a second for the museum, which will be called “Genevieve”. They also built six robots for a space museum in Prague, three miniature versions of the Mars rover, and three robots modeled on the Russian moon rover, Lunokhod.

The Beatty’s Lunokhod robot
Photo Credit: Beatty Robotics

The family works together in their small, but well appointed garage workshop. They like to have nice tools with matching sets, and have developed their own shop etiquette. “Keep it in the middle,” is the rule when sharing tools. The floor of the shop is black and usually has shiny chips on it from cutting metal. “It looks like sparkly space,” says Genevieve.

They also have a “Box of Shame” filled with tools that broke off in pieces they were machining, parts where they messed up cuts, and fried electronics. Despite the name, the family’s obvious humor shows there’s no shame in making mistakes. It helps you learn.

One of Camille’s favorite projects is Snailbot, a seashell with the robotic innards stuffed inside the shell. She likes combining nature with technology. Camille also makes a steampunk-style pendant necklace, which they even sell on their website. Genevieve likes their telegraph project. They picked up a pair of vintage telegraph keys and sounders. They built them into a pair of wireless Morse code communicators using Arduino microcontrollers and XBee radios. Robert snagged the attractive telegraphs for his home office, but the girls borrow them when they feel like playing.

So what’s next for the Beatty family? They will be working on the Genevieve rover, and continuing their relationship with NYSCI.

“They exemplify a model for young makers and the idea that anyone can do this,” says Dr. Margaret Honey, President & CEO of NYSCI.

Their rover will be part of a program through NYSCI to visit children’s hospitals in Manhattan so they can play with the robot.

The Beattys will also be back in New York for their very first Maker Faire in September. They are looking forward to meeting many like-minded makers.

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Andrew Terranova is an electrical engineer, writer and author of How Things Are Made: From Automobiles to Zippers. Andrew is also an electronics and robotics enthusiast and has created and curated robotics exhibits for the Children's Museum of Somerset County, NJ and taught robotics classes for the Kaleidoscope Enrichment in Blairstown, NJ and for a public primary school. Andrew is always looking for ways to engage makers and educators.

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