Robotic lobsters at the Marine Science Center

Okay, people, you’re going to have to for­give me today.

Here’s the issue: I have incred­ibly shaky hands. This means that when I try to take videos and pho­tographs they almost always come out blurry.

But I still think that my “footage” (if you can call it that) from the Marine Sci­ence Center, which I vis­ited for the first time in day­light today, is viewer-​​worthy. Not because I think it’s good footage, but because the MSC is so friggin awe­some. I felt like a kid in a candy shop as Dan Blus­tein, a grad stu­dent in Joseph Ayers’ lob­ster robotics lab, showed me around.

Try not to get nau­seous as I take you on this blurry photo tour of the MSC. Per­haps it’ll entice you to go see it for your­self.

While I was in the waiting area I snapped a few pic­tures of some hand­made model ships that were donated by the alum that made them, “for the viewing plea­sure of others.” These made me con­sider building my own model ships…but I’m not sure I’d have the patience (or steady enough hands) for that sort of thing.

Okay, ships are beside the point. The research is really where it’s at in this place. First, Dan (who is awe­some and knows three mil­lion things or more) showed me the equip­ment they use to study active neu­rons inside lob­sters and jel­ly­fish. In some cases they actu­ally put an elec­trode directly into a single neuron and then mea­sure the elec­trical activity it puts out; they can trans­late this into a visual wave­form or an audi­tory rep­re­sen­ta­tion of buzzes and pops.

Next we took a visit to the sea water tank out back. Here’s an image of Dan inside the con­trol room. On the other side of that window, Ayers’ team sets up mazes for lob­sters to wander around in. By manip­u­lating the lob­sters’ envi­ron­ment and mea­suring neu­ro­log­ical activity at the same time, they can learn about behavior and how it’s gov­erned by the ner­vous system.

Once they know some­thing about the neu­rons inside the animal and how they relate to the behav­iors it exhibits, they build robotic ani­mals (mostly lob­sters, but also lam­preys and some other funky dudes) with sim­u­lated ner­vous sys­tems math­e­mat­i­cally mod­eled on the real ones. Unfor­tu­nately I was a little excited when I took the pic­tures of the robot lob­sters, so they all came out totally crappy. But you’ll get the idea.

(I went to col­lege with a bunch of art majors and I’m pretty sure some of them are selling blurry pho­tog­raphy for good money…just saying.)

Okay, back to the point. Here’s an older lob­ster robot from Ayers’ lab. It has two claws up front and a boxy body, instead of a cylin­drical body. Dan explained that the new design will be better able to handle surges in water flow.

These are the live guys, hiding in the corner of their tank. Dan said they don’t like people much (although I guess I wouldn’t either if they tried to stick elec­trodes in my neurons).

What in the world are Dan, Ayers and the other people on the team building mechan­ical robot’s for in the first place, you might ask. The work is funded by the NAVY to develop robots under­water mine coun­ter­mea­sures. Cur­rently, that work is per­formed by humans. For more info, visit the lab’s web­site or stay tuned for the news article that will be coming out of my visit today.


 cover photo: “blue lob­ster” April 24, 2005 via opencage​.com, Cre­ative Com­mons Attribution