When the definitive history of the robotics revolution is written, researchers will have to contend with the massive amount of groundbreaking work done at Carnegie Mellon University.
The Robotics Project at CMU will be ready for them.
Launched this summer, the project is presenting its first online exhibit, Building the Robot Archive, which shows how a group of determined researchers started the world’s first academic robotics department in the 1970s, creating a legacy of cutting-edge robotics research that continues to this day and is transforming Pittsburgh into the robotics capital of the world.
“One of the most fascinating things for me as an archivist working on this, is seeing what a robot prototype actually looks like,” says Katherine Barbera with CMU, who is leading the project. “Sometimes there is duct tape involved. Sometimes there’s glue involved. Sometimes there are pieces of wooden two-by-four involved.”
The project is launching as a digital compilation of videos and oral interviews but the collection also includes physical objects and actual robots.
“The best way to learn about this history is by visiting the digital exhibit and exploring some of the artifacts, photographs and documents that we have on display there,” says Barbera. “In the future, we do hope to have a physical space where the public will be able to interact with these materials, including examples of robots and, really, the context that surrounds them.”
Visitors to the online exhibit will learn that CMU has been working on autonomous vehicles since the 1970s. In fact, the school has been crawling with robots of all kinds — sometimes quite literally. The Snakebot went from the lab to climbing up Jimmy Fallon’s leg on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
There’s also the startling image of Ivan Sutherland’s Trojan Cockroach motoring on six legs behind campus.
“It’s just a really interesting example of different technologies kind of colliding,” says Barbera. “Ivan Sutherland will tell you that he has been interested in robots for a very long time. That’s not what he’s known for [he is in the National Inventors Hall of Fame and has been called the father of computer graphics], but he’s always been a kind of a tinkerer. And this was his opportunity to, you know, try something out, a new technology, to see if he could build a walking machine. And he was successful, and the video documentation of the walking machine is just incredible.”
Another crucial innovation is the versatile, adept mechanical Direct-Drive Arm created by Takeo Kanade and his team in the early 1980s.
“We’re lucky in the case of the Direct-Drive Arm that we do have nearly a complete robot that we can put on display,” says Barbera.
“One of the things that I’ve learned as an archivist working on this is that roboticists are tinkerers. They build something, they take it apart, they build something new, they take apart, and so on. For a lot of these robots, we are left with parts and pieces, and not always a complete structure for us to work with as an artifact.”
The Robot Archive will continue to grow, adding artifacts and documentation.
“Over the next several months, we’re going to be putting together a digital prototype of sorts that will expose additional artifacts and history of robotics at Carnegie Mellon,” adds Barbera. “And then we will continue to develop that prototype into a digital collection that the public will be able to go to and explore.”
The Robot Hall of Fame started at Carnegie Mellon — honoring fictional robots such as R2-D2 and WALL-E, as well as real robots, such as the Roomba and the bomb disposal PackBot. Now it’s on display at the Carnegie Science Center and is not connected with the online exhibit.