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Carnegie Mellon University Launches The Robotics Project to Preserve and Promote the Field’s Legacy

Ivan Sutherland demonstrates the Trojan Cockroach at Carnegie Mellon University

Ivan Sutherland demonstrates the Trojan Cockroach, a walking machine developed by Sutherland and his team at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1980s. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

With the rapidly advancing age of innovation, the world risks losing critical pieces of robotics history. Early robots have been known to be discarded, decaying in warehouses and fields. Many of the initial data and documents were stored on magnetic tape, disks and other obsolete media dependent on outdated technology. 

In the world-first attempt to preserve and promote the legacy of robotics, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) launched The Robotics Project. Created by University Libraries and the School of Computer Science at CMU, the mission of this collaborative effort is to explore the beginnings of the field of robotics, highlighting significant achievements of the past and connecting them to endeavors of the future.

The debut exhibit of The Robotics Project, called Building the Robot Archive, provides an informative, behind-the-scenes look at the collaborative work among roboticists and archivists to document the field’s history. Available through CMU’s University Libraries website, it provides insight into the key questions the team wrestled with, the methods they used and the lengths they went to capture the legacy of this research and its innovators.

The result of the efforts chronicled in this exhibit, a repository called The Robot Archive, is a core component of The Robotics Project. The Robot Archive aims to become the world’s go-to repository for the past, present and future of robotics, which includes many of CMU’s groundbreaking contributions that shaped the fabric of modern life. 

Like the Trojan Cockroach, a six-legged machine considered the first controlled by a computer and capable of carrying a person. The exhibit features a video from the early 1980s with Ivan Sutherland riding atop the robot — moving forward, walking backwards, and making a 180-degree turn — on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus. 

At one point, he attempts to balance the massive machine on only two legs. 

“We believe that a mastery of balance will be important to future walking machines,” Sutherland narrates over the footage.

The architects of The Robotics Project believe now is the time to capture transformative stories, like Sutherland’s, and preserve pioneering work. 

Katherine Barbera, an archivist and oral historian in the CMU Libraries and lead archivist for The Robotics Project, stated “Our team faces challenges in this work, and we’re developing unique methods that will allow us to preserve this history so that current and future generations can understand the evolution of robotics and its significant impact on the modern world.”

“For over a decade, I have been fortunate to work with teams in the field of robotics and autonomous vehicles, together witnessing incredible breakthroughs to some of the world’s most complex challenges,” said Bryan Salesky, Founder and CEO of Argo AI, the company that partners with CMU on the Carnegie Mellon University Argo AI Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research. “We often say that Argo was founded on the shoulders of the roboticists that pioneered this industry, and we are thrilled to preserve and celebrate this rich history with The Robotics Project.” 

Salesky himself is part of an important robotics milestone. He was the software engineering lead for Tartan Racing, Carnegie Mellon’s winning entry in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge.

The rich history Salesky mentions spans not only decades but interconnected teams, labs, communities and institutions. Artifacts that The Robotics Project protects — not just robots, but also the supporting materials like prototypes, parts, models, videos, images, code, research proposals, emails, websites and even trading cards — help answer questions about the people and research involved, the robot’s actions and the project’s intent. 

Stories memorialized about the roboticists, engineers, scientists, students and others bring the work to life with the hope to inspire the next generation. 

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