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Pick And Plate

The Pick and Plate is a robot designed by my coworker Dylan Thrush and myself, and is something that took years for us to accomplish. This robot uses an onboard beaglebone black computer, paired with a camera and opencv, to detect embryos in a special petri dish, pick them up one at a time, and plate them into a scientific 96-well plate. Many years ago, the researchers at SARL would do this process completely by hand, resulting in tens of man hours a day lost to sorting embryos. Then they hired a small group of engineers to develop an automated way of speeding up this process. The results at the time were massive industrial units that were roughly 4.5’x4.5’x8′ and astronomically expensive (more than 150k at least), doubly so considering they commissioned four of them. While the units worked, they were hard to calibrate and way too expensive to make copies of so the new engineering group was tasked with solving this problem.

Over the course of a few years, Dylan and I went through many many revisions of a prototype. For a while, I designed custom motion controller PCBs that I ultimately did not end up using as the development time was too long. Mechanical designs changed over an over again as we found that small issues in tolerances meant a lot when the diameter of an embryo was half a millimeter. On the software side, I rewrote the core application more times than I can count, as I taught myself multi-threaded programming, computer vision, gui development, and proper program design techniques. In the end however, the hard work paid off and we had a functioning unit that was less than $10,000, only somewhat slower to fill a plate than the previous generation, and which only took up a 1’x1’x1.25′. That is the final form that you can see above. There is still cleanup to do on some of the code, and both mechanical and electrical changes needed before it can be put into low volume commercial production (a secondary, but still important goal of the rebuild), but the base redesign is functional and much more practical so we can’t be happier! An extra cool note about this project is that the first development unit is now installed at the Fort Detrick Army Base in Frederick, Maryland!