Forget self driving cars, Matt Reimer has a self driving tractor

And he learned how to build it using open courseware from MIT and open source software.

Matt is a grain farmer in Manitoba. Like most farmers (at least the ones I have known in my life) Matt is resourceful and always looking for ways to improve his processes, especially when it comes to saving time. For a farmer, time is critical, especially at harvest when the window of time to get your crop off the field is short.

To help with the harvest, Matt wanted to try to make the tractor that automatically pulls up alongside a combine to collect the harvest. As he talks about in this story from CBC’s excellent weekly tech show Spark, harvesting is normally a 2 person job; one driving the combine, and a second driving a tractor. Normally the tractor driver spends about  5 minutes collecting the grain, then 20 minutes sitting in the tractor doing nothing waiting for the combine hopper to fill up again.

So, he wanted to try to make his tractor doing this automatically and autonomously. Where did he learn how to do this? He found an open course from MIT’s open courseware MITx and taught himself the basics of robotics. He then used open source software to build the robotics that powers the tractor. Bingo. Robot tractor that frees up his hired help to spend their time doing more useful tasks around the farm than sitting around waiting for a hopper to fill up.

Open made this happen. A farmer with a bit of curiosity, access to free and open knowledge and open source software is able to develop a robot that saves him time and money. Love this story.


Capilano University embraces OpenCourseWare

This is pretty exciting. I just came across Capilano University’s OpenCourseWare site where anyone can access and reuse Capilano University course material. Like the MIT version, Capilano has made learning resources available for free to anyone in the world.

What this means for faculty at other institutions is that Capilano has released this material with a Creative Commons attribution license meaning other faculty can reuse and modify any of the content for use in their courses providing they follow a few simple rules – give attribution, do not use the content for commercial work and share alike.

There are currently about 20 courses available from Capilano, but the long-term goal of the program is to have most of Capilano’s courses available using the OCW model.

As far as I know, Capilano is the first institution in BC to adopt OpenCourseWare.


MIT Lecture Browser – text search for video content

I just came across the MIT Lecture Browser and am a bit smitten.

Essentially, it’s a combination speech to text converter and search engine for video lectures at MIT. Enter in a word and the search engine will not only find the videos that the word is used in, but it will also take you to the exact spot within the video where that word was used and give you a running transcript.

With more than 100 million videos online and another 100,000 being uploaded each day, there is an awful lot of great content that is, for the most part, hidden away from search engines that do nothing but search on tags, keywords and descriptions.

I imagine this kind of search will be much more common in the next couple of years – in fact, there are already some options emerging in this area.

The speech to text recognition isn’t perfect. I used the example search term of “wine”. one of the videos returned was from Nicholas Negroponte, talking about the hundred dollar laptop at the 2005 MIT Emerging Technologies Conference. I was intrigued. Where in that address did Negroponte talk about wine? Well, here’s the text quote:

show you a few slides so wine doubt laptop it does you could that that creek slips out and see sells word eat else can slip and

And here is Negroponte’s actual quote:

show you a few slides. It’s a wind up laptop. (bit of a stumble) that crank slips out and c cells or d cells could slip in

So the speech to text is a work in progress.

But besides the technology, the ability to access and search the MIT lecture library for content is also very cool. However, it looks like there isn’t a heck of a lot of content there yet. Do a search for “television” in the category “Media” and you only get a single video returned. I suspect the word “television” might be used in a few more classes than that in a Media Studies program.

Maybe part of the reason I am smitten is that it reminded me of a project I was working on about 5 years ago. We have a large collection of digitized audio and I was trying to build a web based application using an XML based language called SMIL that would do something similar with audio clips. That project eventually died, and I was a bit sad that the use of SMIL was never really mainstreamed, despite being a W3C technology. It looks like the MIT site uses some SMIL program and that brought back some warm fuzzies of my bygone project.

Really, how can you not love a programming language called SMIL?