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  • 'RoboLobster' Part of Smithsonian Exhibit
Nov 2006
NEW YORK, Nov. 29, 2006 -- A biomimetic underwater robot, "RoboLobster," will be one of the innovations featured in the "Design Life Now: National Design Triennial 2006" series exhibition, to be held Dec. 8, 2006 through July 29, 2007, at the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, located at Fifth Ave. and 91st St. in New York City.

Joseph Ayers, Northeastern University, Nahant, MA. First- and Second-generation Biomimetic Underwater Ambulatory Robot (RoboLobster), 2005. Sponsor: Office of Naval Research (Photo: John F. Williams, courtesy Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum)
The exhibit will bring together the experimental designs and emerging ideas at the center of American culture from 2003 to 2006, focusing on four principal ideas that characterized elements of the design world: emulating life; community; hand-crafted and do-it-yourself design; and transformation. It will highlight designs that emulate the natural world —either through form or movement — from game design to robotics to products like kayaks and sneakers. Many new designs are based on biomimicry, studying the appearance and form of natural organisms in order to replicate various processes and functions. 

On view throughout the museum campus will be the work of 87 designers and firms from established design leaders such as Apple Computer Inc., architect Santiago Calatrava and Nike Inc., to emerging designers like Joshua Davis, Jason Miller and David Wiseman.

Alongside the Nike Free running shoe and the Apple iPod, also represented will be NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Rover (LEMUR) IIa; Suzanne Tick Inc. of New York's double-woven fiber optics and monofilament sculpture; David Hanson/Hanson Robotics Inc.'s Hubo Einstein biped walking robot, and Graham Hawkes/Deep Flight, of San Francisco, for its Deep Flight I winged submersible.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Rover (LEMUR) IIa, 2004–present. Mobility and Robotic Systems Group. Aluminum, nylon, graphite, Nomex composites. (Photo: NASA/JPL, courtesy Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum)
RoboLobster is a 7-lb., 2-ft.-long robot modeled after a real lobster and designed to crawl along the coast and underwater, scoping out hidden mines. It is one of the first robots ever built to use artificial muscle, called Nitinol, which allows it to move more easily on its own.

Joseph Ayers, associate professor of biology and director of external relations at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Mass., began developing the RoboLobster there in 1998.

Biomimetic robots are, in principle, relatively small, agile and relatively cheap, relying on electronic nervous systems, sensors and novel actuators. Most importantly, they can take advantage of capabilities proven in animals for dealing with real-world environments.

Ayers said, "We put together a team of biologists and engineers to build a new kind of robot that could capture the performance advantages of animals in the natural environment. We proved that it was feasible and are well on our way to being able to control them with a simple nervous system of electronic neurons and synapses."

He said the team hopes to endow these vehicles with the capability "to wiggle and squirm out of tight spots, just like their animal models. The neurotechnology emerging from this biomimetic approach will revolutionize robotics and medical devices for neurorehabilitation."

The RoboLobster was named one of Time magazine’s Coolest Inventions in 2003 and was recognized as one of the “innovative products and technologies that are transforming our world” by Wired magazine at its 2005 NEXTFEST convention. The project was originally funded by The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Defense Sciences Office (DARPA/DSO) then was transferred to the Office of Naval Research (ONR).
Suzanne Tick Inc., New York, NY. Crossform light, 2004. Double woven fiber optics and monofilament. Photo: (Photo: Carter LeBlanc, courtesy Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum)
The “National Design Triennial” is an ongoing exhibition series at the Cooper-Hewitt. Inaugurated in 2000, it seeks and presents the most innovative American designs from the prior three years in a variety of fields, including product design, architecture, furniture, film, graphics, new technologies, animation, science, medicine and fashion.

“By displaying side-by-side the latest products and creative concepts from companies as diverse as Pixar, Google, Herman Miller and NASA, the ‘Triennial’ emphasizes the nearly infinite ways in which design plays a role in how we see, think about and experience the world around us,” said museum director Paul Warwick Thompson.  "In the process of designing the Nike Free running shoe, Nike designers explored the physiognomy of the human foot to try to emulate in a shoe the range of motion that occurs in the toes and feet when running barefoot.

Apple’s iPod also displays nature’s characteristics of rapid mutation and change, he said: It only functions when customized by individual users, it can continually expand its functions and its designs are adaptive — from the basic iPod to the Video iPod.

Ayers’ RoboLobster, intended to recognize changes in seawater and locate underwater mines, is a robotic crustacean whose structure and form replicates its living counterpart. Graham Hawkes’ Deep Flight submersible can fly through the water like a greatbodied sea creature, through a design process which began with motion studies and engineering."

Recently, robotics has moved from industrial and scientific tasks to the home, through affordable robots ranging from toys such as Wowwee’s Robosapien to domestic assistants such as IRobot’s Roomba and Scooba cleaning devices. Thompson said, "David Hanson has gone one step further, by creating robots that uncannily mimic human behavior, expressions and appearance."

Hanson’s robotic head of Albert Einstein features highly realistic, responsive, skin-like 'frubber' and artificial intelligence components that enable the robot to answer questions with extremely realistic and subtle facial expressions. Similarly, Sergeant Blackwell, a three-dimensional virtual character developed for military training exercises by The Institute of Contemporary Technology, is able to visually track movement, answer unscripted questions and display different emotional states, he said.

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