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Robots Drive, Swarm, Jump into Smithsonian Collection

Museum acquires milestone pieces of robotic history

Created by 'Star Wars' filmmaker George Lucas,  C-3PO is among the most famous of all science-fiction robots.
Created by 'Star Wars' filmmaker George Lucas, C-3PO is among the most famous of all science-fiction robots.

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Rosanne Skirble

C-3PO of "Star Wars" movie fame lives here. So, does his side-kick R2D2. They are part of the robot collection at the National Museum of American History in Washington.

Curator Carlene Stephens says even though these androids are just movie props, they represent something much more. “They have a long history. And, as a history museum, they fit directly into our interest in things relating to industry, things relating to invention and innovation."



Among Stephens’ favorites is a 450-year old carved wood figure from Germany. The intricately designed object, less than 40 centimeters tall, is a kind of prototype robot from the mechanical age.

“It looks like a figure of a monk and it rolls across the floor, simulating walking, simulating the mea culpa and simulating rising a crucifix to its lips and kissing it," says Stephens. "All the while, he’s rolling across the floor his eyes are moving side to side.”

Worldwide, more than six million robots labor on factory assembly lines and perform military service.  Among the robots in the museum is PackBot, a remote controlled minesweeper that’s also used in surveillance operations by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Then there is the driverless car, named Stanley, that raced more than 200-plus kilometers across southern California’s Mojave Desert to win the $2 million DARPA Challenge.  

“I had to take a chance that Stanley is going to represent a key moment in the history of American technology that indicates the future of driving," says Stephens. "Stanley at this moment influences driving of the future. Already we have cars that park themselves, that have collision avoidance systems. Stanley is in this stream of inventive outpouring.”

That stream of inventive outpouring has helped generate new gifts to the museum. Bruce Hall, the president of a California-based company called Velodyne, came to the Smithsonian with an assortment of electronic sensors and obstacle-detection devices that were invented by his brother Dave and deployed on robotic vehicles in DARPA Challenge races.  He says the HDL-64 is a game-changer.

“It contains 64 lasers. So we have all this: about 2.5 million points of data per second - distance points per second - around the vehicle. So it gives us a complete understanding of everything going on around us so we can make intelligent navigation decisions.”

Hall says his company's innovation could make its way into safety features and eventually, the brothers believe, to robotic cars and trucks. “You will see advancements, I believe in our lifetimes, when you tell (the car) to drive somewhere and it will take you there.”

Barry Spletzer, former senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories Intelligence Systems and Robotics Center, was “nothing short of astonished” to have his miniature robots in the Smithsonian.  “It was just a project to see how small we could make robots.”

Spletzer came to the museum with a gift box of mini-robots that include the Miniature Autonomous Robotic Vehicle or MARV and other tiny offshoots. “They are historically significant because we have the world’s smallest robot. We have the world’s highest-hopping robot. We have several cooperative, ‘swarm’ robots. These are all advances in technology in the last 10 to 15 years.”                                                                 

Spletzer says these robotic technologies are finding uses in space exploration, medicine, and security systems. Museum Curator Carlene Stephens hopes the donated robots and others that follow will remind the public about the important role science and technology play in everyday life.   

 

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