November 15, 2016 11:57 am

Robotic dinosaurs at U.K. theme park upgraded with cognitive software

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The Isle of Wight off the south coast of England is a hotspot for dinosaur fossils. But at Blackgang Chine – an amusement park founded in 1843 on the south side of the island – it’s animatronic dinosaurs that are one of their biggest crowd pleasers.

These life-sized robotic dinosaurs are built with a limited number of movements such as swishing the tail or, as with the Tyrannosaurus Rex, jaws opening into a roar.

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The park’s owner, Alexander Dabell, wanted to see if his dinosaurs could be more interactive, responding to people as they walked down a path or interact with each other.

“How do we get more out of our dinosaurs? How do we get them to be more interactive? How do we get them to be more intuitive to what it is that we want? And part of that is then down to how we develop the technology that helps those dinosaurs move,” Dabell told Reuters.

Dabell posted a message on Twitter asking if anyone would like to hack his dinosaurs to give them a new lease on life. IBM’s Andy Stanford-Clark got wind of this unusual request and decided to answer the call, using the Raspberry Pi mini-computer and IBM’s Watson Internet of Things (IoT) platform to help inject new life into the robo-lizards.

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“The T-Rex, when it came from the factory it had a pre-programmed set of motions. It just kept doing the same things over and over again. But once we put the Raspberry Pi controller in there we were able to introduce the element of randomness. So that sometimes it might do nothing and then it’ll suddenly roar, or it might wag its tail for a while then suddenly move its head,” said Stanford-Clark.

Stanford-Clark is working with Blackgang Chine to install Raspberry Pi’s in all its animatronic dinosaurs, and experimenting with how to exploit the technology to its full potential. This includes using IBM’s Watson cognitive computing software to collect data relating to the dinosaur’s condition and relaying it to park workers.

“One example for the operation of the park is the brontosaurus has a very long neck and needs a neck brace when the wind is high to stop it falling over. So we’re getting data from the weather station, sending alerts out to people’s mobile phones to say ‘send the crew out with the neck brace to prop the dinosaur up,'” added Stanford-Clark.

The Raspberry Pi initiative has helped customize the park’s dinosaurs with a more varied set of movements. Staff members are learning basic programming to create new routines for different scenarios, such as feeding time when all the dinosaurs roar as one for their food. Dabell said they’re exploring how to further use the Internet of Things to make the park more interactive for guests.

“Technology such as the Raspberry Pi’s are integral into how we can adapt the lighting, the sound, the smoke, the pyrotechnics to make everything come more to life, seem more realistic. In due course, we are looking to make that more responsive to the audience so that they’ll be triggers – such as beams that they will break, and sequences will start. And it’s how we build on that and get more degrees of interactivity,” he said.

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Stanford-Clark added that the software that monitors and controls them doesn’t care whether it’s moving an animatronic dinosaur or monitoring cars, escalators or washing machines. They’re all connected to the Internet of Things using cognitive computing; increasingly integrated into many real-world applications

“What we’re doing here with the dinosaurs at Blackgang Chine is directly applicable to the industrial Internet of Things. The maintenance and operation of the dinosaurs, with a complicated set of motors and control logic, is exactly the same as what we see in factory automation or in a pumping station at a water company or any number of places,” said Stanford-Clark. “So what appears to be having fun with dinosaurs here has actually got some serious applications for the Internet of Things.”

© 2016 Reuters

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