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Museum of Science and Industry Brings in Robots Inspired by Snakes, Roaches

By Sam Cholke | April 7, 2014 7:39am
 The Museum of Science and Industry is inviting a host of robots to swarm the rotunda for a weeklong celebration of automatons.
Robotics Week at the Museum of Science and Industry
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HYDE PARK — Metallic cockroaches scurried over cinder blocks and the gears of mechanical snake whirred as it climbed up a pant leg as the Museum of Science and Industry kicked off robotics week on Friday.

“This is definitely inspired by snakes,” said Dave Rollinson, a Ph.D. student in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, as a three-foot robot coiled at his feet.

Robotics week opened at the museum with a cast of machines that mimic real-life creatures.

Rollinson and the other students from the Pittsburgh-based university brought their robot inspired by a snake designed to crawl into the rubble of a collapsed building in search of survivors or shimmy through a narrow sewer pipe in search of leaks.

“They’re kind of like a Swiss army knife — [they] can crawl on the inside of pipes, but [they] can also crawl on the outside,” Rollinson said.

The cyclopean snake reared up in its best impression of a cobra and waved its camera head around the main rotunda of the museum and then slithered across the tile and wrapped around ankle of John Beckman, the director of exhibits design and development at the museum.

As the serpentine robot tightened around and his ankle and began crawling up his pant leg, Beckman said he was excited about having the project at the museum because it showed a glimpse of a future where tapeworm-size robots do the bidding of surgeons.

“Our lab already does that,” Rollinson said. “It’s a snake that comes in under your sternum and does heart surgery.”

The graduate students were there to inspire young robot enthusiasts, but many of the robots scampering across the marble floors of the museum seemed inspired by creatures that still lurk in the nightmares of many adults.

On one side, a black lozenge-shaped robot flailed its crescent shaped legs as it hobbled over cinder blocks, a design inspired by the movements of a cockroach.

Just adjacent to the mechanized roach, a white box clung to a sheet of glass like the decapitated head of a leech slowly inching across the plane, cleaning off dry-erase marker.

“Hopefully, some of these kids get inspired and walk away wanting to work with robots,” Beckman said.

There were robots inspired by a more blissful muse.

A plush seal named Paro designed as a therapeutic robot would coo and snuggle in at the touch of a person.

The museum will host a rotating cast of sublime and surreal robots through Sunday.

The week will end with the BotBall championship, a competition between teams of middle school and high school robot builders facing off in an obstacle course while trying to move objects around a field with autonomous robots.

“The first roboticist you meet might be an 8-year-old kid,” Beckman said.

A full schedule of visiting robots is available on the Museum of Science and Industry’s website at msichicago.org/whats-here/events/national-robotics-week/.

Admission is included with a regular ticket to the museum, , 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive.