Inside the Collection

Robug IV The rise of the machines?

Walking robot prototype, University of Southern Queensland
2012/18/1 Prototype walking robot, Robug IV, designed and made at the Department of Mechatronics, University of Southern Queensland, Australia, 1995-1999. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The Powerhouse Museum has an impressive and growing collection of robots. From a nineteenth century automaton to the Articulated Head currently featured in the Galleria section of the Museum, the study and collection of robots is something the Museum’s science curators take seriously, but also have an enormous amount of fun with; I mean, they’re robots!

Recently acquired was the Robug IV prototype walking robot. As the name suggests, Robug is the fourth generation of prototype self-ambulant robots, and as you can see from the videos of his predecessors, Robug IV certainly looks much more sophisticated, and more than a little bit Hollywood.

Robug was donated to the Powerhouse Museum by Professor Billingsley from the University of Southern Queensland, Department of Mechtronics. As well as being one of the nicest guys in science academia, Professor Billingsley has knowledge of robotics that spans several decades, and he has solved problems in some of the harshest environments on Earth: cleaning and maintaining nuclear power plant chimney stacks – of course, with robots. His research and development of robotics in Australia has empirically proven his theories on replicating animal mobility and applying it to robot mobility, and of course produced some of the coolest looking robots – real robots – in existence. The Museum also has the Robotoad III climbing robot, the Spider walking/climbing robot, and the Robocow robot , a robot used to train horses to cut cattle, in its collection, all the results of Professor Billingsley’s work.

An aspect of Robug IV of particular note is the large, highly accessible emergency stop button on his back. This was included in his design for practical and OHS reasons – Robug is large and has many moving parts, and may need to be stopped quickly for any number of reasons. But it is also emblematic of mankind’s tenuous relationship with its technological creations.

From governors like the one used on the Boulton and Watt beam engine 18432, to the braking system on automobiles, to logical, linear and fuzzy logic control systems, the power inherent in technology needs to be controlled, or else that ungoverned power will turn into a larger problem than the one that the technology was developed for overcoming is. The issue of technology becoming too big to handle is as old as technology.The luddites who destroyed mechanical weaving looms in the nineteenth century and Neil Postman’s theories on the over-reliance on information technology are obvious examples of the dread and reactivity that technology can instil in society. Further still is the constant theme in popular culture fiction of technology becoming self-aware and turning on its makers – HAL 900 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ash in Alien, and of course Skynet in The Terminator franchise have imprinted upon us their cautionary tales of giving digital entities too much power.

Robug IV is an ominous looking machine, even in stasis. Should the order to kill all humans be given, it’s handy to know there is a contingency, at least with him. The emergency stop button on Robug IV’s back is at once comforting, humorous, and absurd. But also so fitting, given its situation both physically, and metaphysically.

Robug IV, and several other robots will be on display in the Museum from May 2012. Along, of course, with the robots which are already featured in the Powerhouse Museum’s galleries.

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