CMU's HERB and CHIMP Star in National Geographic's "Robots" Giant-Screen Documentary Premieres at Carnegie Science Center Sept. 4

Byron SpiceTuesday, September 1, 2015

CMU robots HERB and CHIMP share the silver screen with other popular robots in National Geographic Studio's latest film, "Robots."

HERB, the robot butler, and CHIMP, the semi-humanoid that was one of the top finishers in the DARPA Robotics Challenge in June, share the silver screen with such robots as Honda's ASIMO, Boston Dynamics' Atlas and a European consortium's iCUB humanoid in National Geographic Studio's latest film, "Robots."

The giant-screen documentary will open at the Rangos Omnimax Theater at the Carnegie Science Center on Friday, Sept. 4. HERB himself will be at the science center for a 21+ Nights Robots program on Friday, Sept. 18, and a daylong, all-age Robots Celebration on Saturday, Sept. 19.

The movie, hosted by the gentlemanly humanoid "RoboThespian," voiced by actor Simon Pegg, features a dozen robots in all. It explores the state of the art in the design and engineering of human-like robots while also addressing philosophical questions about how humans and robots will interact in the future.

"In making the film, I discovered how far these machines have come in the last few decades," said the director, Mike Slee. "The flip side of the coin is how far they have to go. You realize that, compared to humans, robots are still kind of primitive. I kept having these glass-half-full, glass-half-empty moments."

The filmmakers visited Carnegie Mellon last year to shoot CHIMP at the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) and HERB at the Personal Robotics Lab in Newell-Simon Hall.

The film uses each robot to illustrate one of the technologies necessary for building a robot. In CHIMP's case, the filmmakers focused on sensing and, particularly, the two rotating laser rangefinders on CHIMP's head that enable the robot to build a 3-D model of its surroundings. CHIMP — the CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform — is shown using this capability to negotiate a maze in the NREC highbay.

With HERB, the Home Exploring Robot Butler, the filmmakers highlighted the robot's ability to manipulate objects. Designed to test technology and software that might be used in robots that work in people's homes, HERB is shown clearing dishes from a table — sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Siddhartha Srinivasa, associate professor of robotics, is director of the Personal Robotics Lab, where HERB was designed and built and continues to be improved.

The "Robots" crew also visited the 2013 trials for the DARPA Robotics Challenge in Homestead, Fla., where they captured images of CHIMP using a power tool to cut a hole in a wall. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsored the competition in response to Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, testing the ability of rival robots to perform the sorts of tasks that would be necessary to stop such a catastrophe.

"It's a very cool concept to build a robot machine that goes into dangerous environments to do rescue work or help in some way," Slee said.

At the finals for the competition in June, CHIMP and 23 other robots faced such tasks as driving and exiting a vehicle, closing valves, opening doors, climbing stairs, and clearing a path through rubble. CHIMP completed all eight tasks in just over 55 minutes — good enough for third place and a $500,000 prize. CMU's Tartan Rescue Team, which designed, built and operated CHIMP, was led by Tony Stentz, research professor of robotics. Mike Vande Weghe, lead robotics engineer, now directs the CHIMP program.

Another of the film's featured robots, Atlas, also competed at the DARPA Robotics Challenge and was used by several teams, including the WPI-CMU team that included Robotics Professor Chris Atkeson.

The documentary is meant to explain the capabilities of today's robots and the difficulty in achieving human-like qualities, while also being entertaining and, at times, humorous.

"We've only covered the tip of the iceberg but we see 'Robots' as a primer," Slee said. "If you're interested in humanoid robotics and your age is somewhere between 7 and 107, then you're going to be interested in this film."

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Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 |