Big, blue, and beautiful

By Carlene Stephens

In my time here at the museum, I've collected lots of things. Most have been relatively small—like watches—or even smaller—like parts of watches. Such things don't take up much room and are, for all their delicacy, easy to handle. A shoebox, padded with tissue paper and held exactly level, will safely transport lots of little things into the museum.

Shoeboxes won't work now that I'm collecting robots.

2005_stanleydriving Take Stanley, for example. This beautiful blue robot the museum just acquired is the size of a car! A modified Volkswagen Touareg, to be exact. Stanley can navigate for itself, without a human in the driver's seat or at remote controls.

Stanley's not only big and beautiful, but historically important too: in a brief but spectacular racing career, Stanley beat twenty-two other robot vehicles for a $2 million prize on a demanding 132-mile course across the Mojave Desert. Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the October 2005 contest demonstrated that robot vehicles—long considered just experimental dreams—are in fact feasible.

Stanley arrived at the museum not too long ago, completely drained of the biodiesel fuel that makes the vehicle go and prepped for long-term display. For a car that can drive itself, this robot needs a lot of human help to get around. Thanks to the museum's labor crew—all six of them—who maneuvered Stanley's 3000-pound bulk from loading dock to freight elevator to first floor, and thanks to the careful attentions of our collections manager, Stanley is resting comfortably in temporary storage. Come October, the robot will need their considerable help one last time to roll across the first floor for display in "Robots on the Road," a display within the museum's Science in American Life exhibition.

Carlene Stephens is a curator in the Division of Work and Industry.