Guest post: RoboLobster goes to India

This post was written by one of my favorite North­eastern grad stu­dents, Dan Blus­tein, who studies bio­mimetic robots in biology pro­fessor Joe Ayers’ lab. Read on for details on his trip to India, where he showed off those robots at a student-​​run con­fer­ence and picked up a few life lessons along the way.

Last week I took a menagerie of robot ani­mals to India. The robots were the fea­tured attrac­tion of my exhi­bi­tion at a student-​​run tech­nology con­fer­ence on the campus of the Indian Insti­tute of Tech­nology in Kanpur. And after sur­viving the 7,300 mile journey to India from Boston, RoboLob­ster, Robo­Lam­prey, and RoboBee were ready for show time.

I was invited by the con­fer­ence orga­nizers to show off our latest bio­mimetic robot tech­nology on under­water and flying robots. These are the guys we work on in the lab of biology pro­fessor Joseph Ayers at North­eastern University’s Marine Sci­ence Center in Nahant, Mass., just a short drive north of Boston and where I’m a doc­toral student.

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We study ani­mals like lob­sters and hon­ey­bees and then we mimic what we find to build robot models. We try to account for every­thing from the animal’s body plan and move­ments to how the ner­vous system con­trols those move­ments and behaviors.

The main aim of our work is to run ner­vous system sim­u­la­tions on our robots that we can manip­u­late. It can be dif­fi­cult to exper­i­men­tally change the ner­vous system in a freely behaving animal, but we can easily change the ner­vous sys­tems that run our robot ani­mals to test out dif­ferent neu­ro­science hypotheses. If a lob­ster gets stuck out in the wild, it can kick, wiggle and squirm its way to freedom, but how does it do that? We’re testing out dif­ferent ner­vous system struc­tures on our robots to help us figure out how ani­mals, like the squirming lob­ster, adapt their behavior to their environments.

For three straight days an end­less stream of con­fer­ence atten­dees vis­ited my bio­mimetic robot booth, snap­ping photos and asking a range of ques­tions about the robots: “What does it do?” “Why does it look like a lob­ster?” “How deep can it go?” I did my best to explain the sci­ence behind the robots and our approach to what we call syn­thetic neuroscience.

Here I am at my booth before the crowds arrived:

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The stu­dents at IIT Kanpur were extremely wel­coming, in par­tic­ular Vaibhav, a freshman chem­ical engi­neering major who served as my hos­pi­tality host, escorting me every­where and get­ting me any­thing I needed.

I was most impressed by how much the stu­dents at IIT Kanpur seemed to appre­ciate and admire sci­en­tific work. Every night at 10:30 pm there was a sci­en­tific talk by a pre­em­i­nent sci­en­tist. Stu­dents would line up for hours before the event to get a seat in the audi­to­rium to hear about quantum mechanics, black holes or some other lofty subject.

And the enter­tain­ment at the con­fer­ence was over-​​the-​​top. Every day there were con­certs and shows ranging from sword swal­lowers to Bol­ly­wood stars. A rock con­cert my first night in Kanpur was par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable as I danced along with hun­dreds of Indian col­lege stu­dents to the elec­tric violin riffs of a cover of The Who’s Baba O’Riley.

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After my time at the con­fer­ence, I ven­tured off on the tourist cir­cuit vis­iting the Taj Mahal, the ram­bling mar­kets of Delhi, tem­ples of many vari­eties, and Jaipur, the Pink City com­plete with a Water Palace and a fort acces­sible by ele­phant. Here I am at a Holi Fes­tival pre-​​party we came across on the road to Jaipur:

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Get­ting the robots back to the U.S. turned into quite the adven­ture. After leaving the con­fer­ence site, I learned of some issues with cus­toms in ship­ping the robots home. Here’s me trying to figure out cus­toms reg­u­la­tions from a Mughal fort in Agra:

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After giving up on ship­ping the robots to the U.S., I decided to take them home with me on the plane. One minor problem: I was in Delhi and the robots were six hours away at the con­fer­ence site. Luckily, two stu­dents going through Delhi for spring break were able to hand off the robots during a quick train sta­tion lay­over. And while RoboLob­ster and Robo­Lam­prey are designed to operate under­water, we needed to keep their trans­port box dry from the Delhi rains using a plastic cov­ering. Since the mar­kets were closed, we had to buy plastic sheets off the top of a local driver’s rickshaw:

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Luckily the rest of the journey home went smoothly and the robots made it to Boston as checked lug­gage without a problem. I wonder what these x-​​ray screeners thought when they peered through the black box con­taining the robot animals:

Photo7My time in India was intense. It’s a country con­stantly buzzing with activity and filled with the unex­pected. A whirl­wind exhi­bi­tion expe­ri­ence left me extremely impressed by the stu­dents of IIT Kanpur; their admi­ra­tion of sci­en­tific dis­covery was refreshing. And my post-​​conference touring gave me a glimpse of India — its his­tory, cul­ture and nature. With just a small taste of the country I really hope to return to see more of this vibrant place. And hope­fully I’ll get to go back and show off our robots again someday.

All photos cour­tesy of Dan Blustein.