The robots rocking Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry

June 4, 2015
MSI's new Robot Revolution exhibit looks to make advanced robotics tech accessible and inspiring

No, they're not taking over the world (yet). But robots ranging from therapeutic robotic animals to industrial pick-and-place machines are capturing public imagination in a new exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

Robot Revolution, which made its debut as a national touring exhibit at MSI in late May, aims to showcase the breadth of applications for which robots are currently being used and offer a glimpse of how robots may continue to transform lives and businesses. 

"We hope that people take away an understanding of what is going on in the field of robotics as well as a strong interest in it," says Kathleen McCarthy, the museum's director of collections and head curator. The exhibit is "great for the general public who's unfamiliar (with robotics)," she says, but it's "also of interest to engineers and to people who are interested in a particular area­­" – be it healthcare, manufacturing, civil services or another field in which the use of robotics is evolving rapidly.

On display are a candy-sorting pick-and-place robot from Fanuc (juxtaposed against a monitor showing the infamous "I Love Lucy" candy factory scene) as well as Baxter, Boston-based Rethink Robotics' recently introduced collaborative robot. Visitors can play a game of tic-tac-toe with Baxter, who, the museum notes, can be easily trained to perform a variety of simple, repetitive tasks. 

Also featured – primarily in a mounted display, not roaming overhead – are drones; their use in aiding disaster response is highlighted. A 10-minute Drone Show live demonstration gives guests a look at the Parrot MiniDrone, a small device controllable by smartphones and tablets.

"Robotics is a truly fascinating field – and it's one that's growing exponentially," David Mosena, president and CEO of MSI, said in a news release about Robot Revolution. "This exhibit, in a fun and engaging way, helps answer questions like: How do robots work? How will they potentially change our lives? How can I get involved in robotics?"

McCarthy notes that interactivity was one of the top priorities for the exhibit, in an effort to engage students in particular. Visitors can create their own robot from magnetized blocks and, in a computer game, try their hand at basic programming tasks. In another display, they can manipulate the behavior of "swarm" robots. In addition, the exhibit's RoboGarage offers visitors the chance to watch specialists as they perform regular maintenance on the robots. 

Robot Revolution offered MSI a great opportunity to develop partnerships with robotics sources, McCarthy says. "We worked with a lot of academic groups, and we have an advisory committee of six robotics professors from around the world," she notes. Among the approximately 40 robots featured in the exhibit are robots from Rice University in Houston, Wroclaw University of Technology in Poland and Zhejiang University in China.

Robot Revolution is supported by; Google's self-driving vehicle technology gets its own display in the form of a video showing how the tech works and what it will look like out on the road in California.

"We believe it is vital to inspire the next generation of engineers and tech entrepreneurs so that we can continue to see technology change the world," said Jim Lecinski, head of Google's Chicago office, in the Robot Revolution news release 

McCarthy, for her part, is excited for guests to discover through the exhibit how wide-ranging the use of robots already is. Robot Revolution "is really an unprecedented collection of robots," she says. And the more it inspires both adults and young students alike, the better. "The thing about any technology is it only succeeds if there is great public interest in it," she says.

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