Smithsonian Adds to Robotics Collection

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has added a number of robotic technologies to its collection, including what may have been some of the smallest robots in the world.

Sandia Labs' tiny Marv robot. (Click to zoom)
One cubic inch-size robot, called Marv, short for Mini Autonomous Robot Vehicle, was developed in 1996-97 at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Lab. Its footprint is not much larger than a quarter, and it was cobbled together from commercially available parts, including a microprocessor, that moved on wheels.

The Smithsonian's robot collection is a blend of the fanciful, historic and current. It includes Star Wars robots R2-D2 and C-3PO, as well as a 450 year old mechanical robot, outwardly a monk that is programmed to perform a number of functions, such as eye, arm and leg movement. The museum also has a large IT collection.

Marv is now included among the 100 robotic artifacts in Smithsonian's collection. There are more than a million industrial robots in use, mostly for rudimentary tasks, said Carlene Stephens, a robotics collection curator. But she uses that figure on commercial adoption to make the point that "robots are now among us."

Barry Spletzer, a retired engineer and scientist from Sandia, worked on Marv, an effort that began "almost on a whim."

Spletzer, who was at the museum today, was particularly pleased at the prospect that Sandia's robot donations may help expose young people to the challenges of engineering.

"The one thing we need to do in this country is grow more engineers -- we're not doing that very well right now, and this is where we start," Spletzer said.

"I always wanted to be an inventor all my life -- I actually got to do it," Spletzer said. "I'd love to see a lot more kids do that."

The initial effort at Sandia was to build a tiny robot without special funding or parts. The point was to essentially see "how small you can make a robot," said Spletzer.

Other tiny robots followed including one, Marv Jr., that was featured in Time Magazine in 2001.

The purpose of small robots is to get into small spaces and conduct inspections and searches, and some where even built to jump over walls and buildings, said Spletzer.

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