At Robot Zoo, a menagerie of mechanical creatures
One day each spring, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School’s field house becomes a hub of interspecies interaction, a bustling place where humans mingle with a menagerie of creatures that can scamper, hop, and fly around the room.
Instead of animals, though, the creatures are artificial agents, on display as part of the Cambridge Science Festival’s celebration of robotics technology. Fittingly called Robot Zoo, the kid-friendly event — which this year takes place April 18, in conjunction with the festival’s Science Carnival — connects the public with engineers, researchers, inventors, and students involved in robotics research and design. Visitors learn about dozens of different kinds of robots and can play with many of them directly.
“The zoo is designed so that when you show up, you roll up your sleeves and participate,” said P.A. d’Arbeloff, the festival’s director. “We have underwater robots, robots flying in the air like drones, robots you can play Frisbee with — there are so many things that you can learn and do with the robots.”
Robot Zoo, which is free, is returning to the annual festival for the third time, and d’Arbeloff said it has easily become one of its most popular attractions, even for people who generally lack interest in science, technology, or engineering.
“We attract people who really love science, but we design the program for people who may not think science is for them,” said d’Arbeloff, the festival’s director since 2007. “By having people participate, it helps them learn and get inspired.”
This may be especially true for kids. The zoo features the work of a number of student groups and brings exposure to FIRST school programs (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). More than 3,000 high school teams design robots for competition as part of the FIRST program.
Londonderry High School’s PVC Pirates will be one of the FIRST teams exhibiting at the Robot Zoo, coming from New Hampshire to Cambridge at the tail end of their competition season. Beginning in January, teams get six weeks to design and build their robots before putting their creations to the test at matches.
For those six weeks, the 30 members of the Londonderry team, huddled over computers or wielding electrical tools, stayed at school long after the bell rang, often well past midnight. The result of their hard work is Phat Stacks, a 5-foot, 119-pound wheeled robot designed to stack large bins on top of one another.
The team members are excited to share their work with the community.
“We love getting people involved,” said Tiffany Miller, a sophomore on the team. “We can inspire people, from little kids to adults, and it’s great to have FIRST [on display].”
The Pirates and other school teams showcase their robots right alongside those of professional vendors and collegiate researchers such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Popovic Labs.
Under the leadership of Marko Popovic, the lab produces biologically inspired systems such as artificial muscles and advanced orthotic and prosthetic technologies.
Popovic and some of his students are returning to the zoo for their second year, bringing new demos and robots with them.
“I think it’s a fantastic event. It’s a great opportunity for the students to interact, and it’s good for people to see what we’re doing,” said Popovic, who has worked at WPI since 2010. “Last year, we had so many visitors, and the kids love it.”
This year, they’ll have new demos and robots to show off, including Hydro Dog, a 35-pound, knee-high aluminum model that can run around on four spindly legs much like a puppy. Artificial muscles — rubbery tubes that fill with water and then release it to incite movement — power the dog, which will be demonstrated alongside kangaroo and bird models at this year’s Robot Zoo.
Another group from WPI, the Robotics and Intelligent Vehicles Research Laboratory, will be on-site with one of its latest projects, an amphibious rover called Walrus designed for disaster response on both water and land. Visitors will also be able to try out the lab’s semi-autonomous wheelchairs that are controlled by brain signals.
Taskin Padir, director of the lab, said the Robot Zoo is a great way for the public to become familiar with — and realize the necessity of — robotics research.
“You may not be interested in science, but robots are becoming a reality. We’re talking about having self-driving cars on the roads soon,” said Padir. “Robotics impacts society, it’s changing lives. It’s important for people to see that.”