Robots, 'now among us,' hit Smithsonian

With 1 million robots in use, museum adds to collection ranging from R2-D2 to its newest, Marv, one of the smallest in the world

Sandia Labs' Marv
Sandia Labs' tiny Marv robot.

WASHINGTON - The Smithsonian Museum of American History on Tuesday added a number of robotic technologies to its collection, including what may have been one of the smallest robots in the world.

The robot known as Marv, short for Mini Autonomous Robot Vehicle, is just one cubic inch in size. It was developed in 1996 and 1997 at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Lab. Its footprint is not much larger than a penny, and it was cobbled together from commercially available parts, including a microprocessor, that moved on wheels.

The Smithsonian's robot collection is a blend of the fanciful, historic and current. It includes Star Wars robots R2-D2 and C-3PO, as well as a 450-year-old mechanical robot -- a device that looks like a monk and is capable of performing a number of functions, such as moving its eyes, arms and legs. The museum also has a large collection of other technology-related artifacts.

Marv is one of about 100 robotic artifacts in the Smithsonian's collection. They merit a place at the museum because there are more than 1 million industrial robots in use today, said Carlene Stephens, a robotics collection curator. While most of those robots perform rudimentary tasks, the sheer number is evidence that "robots are now among us," said Stephens.

Barry Spletzer, a retired engineer and scientist at Sandia, worked on Marv, an effort that began "almost on a whim."

Spletzer, who was at the museum today, was pleased by the idea that Sandia's donations of robots to the Smithsonian might help expose young people to the challenges of engineering.

"The one thing we need to do in this country is grow more engineers -- we're not doing that very well right now, and this is where we start," Spletzer said.

"I always wanted to be an inventor all my life -- I actually got to do it," Spletzer said. "I'd love to see a lot more kids do that."

The initial effort at Sandia was to build a tiny robot without special funding or parts. The point was to essentially see "how small you can make a robot," said Spletzer.

Other tiny robots followed, including one called Marv Jr. that was featured in Time Magazine in 2001.

The purpose of small robots is to get into small spaces and conduct inspections and searches, and some were even built to jump over walls and buildings, said Spletzer.

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