Grossman: The Bumblebee and Robo-Snake on Mars – The Facts


24 October 2013

There’s a plan to colonize Mars. Applications are now being accepted from would-be volunteers. From these, four colonists will be chosen for a one way trip to the red planet. No, this isn’t a NASA Project. This project belongs to a Dutch company, “Mars One.” So, when are the colonists scheduled to leave? About 20 years from now. When you consider that the estimated cost will be 6 billion dollars, you wonder how “Mars One” is planning to finance the project? With a reality TV show. But there’s yet another twist to the financing. The 6 billion dollars will be raised by selling sponsorship/advertising for a reality TV show televised from Mars and staring the four “lucky” colonists who “won” their one-way ticket to the red planet.

Who would want to go on a one-way trip to Mars — 20 years from now? Surprisingly, a lot of people — about 100,000 applicants, to date, have paid the $38 dollar application fee – each hoping (1) to pass the fitness screening to be eligible to make the trip and (2) to win the final selection lottery and be one of the four “lucky” colonists. I’d like to call this “a plan,” but I’m not holding my breath. It would take something more before I’d take a Martian colonial adventure seriously. [1]

But, then, “something more” happened. Bumblebees and Wheeko, a robotic snake, volunteered for a mission to Mars. This was a game-changer. I knew these were real contenders for a successful colonial mission.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Bumbles and Robo-snake were being seriously considered by NASA and the ESA, respectively, rather than “Mars One.” It also didn’t hurt that both Bumbles and Robo-snake are uniquely fitted to be Martian colonists.

In fact, a study published in Gravitational and Space Biology has demonstrated that bumblebees have “the right stuff.” [image] These, rather rotund, wild bees forage for food in the same wild grass and brush in which they build their nests. I’m sure that, at first, no one saw them as particularly obvious candidates for a trip to Mars. But, then, NASA identified an atmospheric pressure of 52 kilopascals (kPa) as “the ideal” for extraterrestrial facilities. That’s a rather low pressure compared to earth’s normal sea level pressure of 101 kPa. The search was on for fit space travelers and Martian colonists. And “Bumbles” made the cut, and then some. [2]

While the bumblebee’s cousin, the familiar hive-dwelling honeybee, not only stopped working, but completely lost the ability to fly at an atmospheric pressure of 66.5 kPa, the bumblebee not only thrived at the lower 52 kPa atmospheric pressure, but continued its work, pollinating plants and collecting honey, at its usual pace. When the pressure was dropped below 50 kPa, “Bumbles” continued to work, but at a slower pace. Then, when the pressure was dropped to 30 kPa, the bumblebees lost their ability to fly but, with an amazing display of mettle, these bees kept on working — foraging, pollinating, and gathering honey, more or less, on foot – crawling from bloom to bloom. I think this the kind of bee we need to conquer the Final Frontier. [3]

Robo-snake, on the other hand, has the obvious advantage of being a robot. [image] So, those conditions necessary to biological organisms are of little importance to this automaton. However, Robo-snake is an odd contender, because he is being considered . . . before he exists.

Although the ESA (European Space Agency) is, more or less, including Robo-snake as a crew member on an upcoming mission to Mars, this particular robotic crew member has not been developed yet. It’s a little strange. But, on second thought, is recruiting a nonexistent crew member to go on a real mission to Mars any stranger than Mars One recruiting real crew members to go on a nonexistent mission to Mars? [4]

No matter, robo-snake’s older brother is standing-in for his sibling in futuro during the evaluation process. Big brother (named Wheeko) is a robotic snake that looks and moves surprisingly like a real snake. It’s modus operandi is beyond a brief and simple description, but one video is worth a 1,000 words. [video] Wheeko, is composed of ten round metal balls, on the balls are rows of what appear to be smaller balls that roll with motive power and make Wheeko move. With a camera on its “head,” (which is the lead ball), it makes the familiar serpentine movement of its namesake as it travels on the ground.

Wheeko is the subject of a current feasibility study by researchers at the SINTEF Research Institute in Norway and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Until now, the primary purpose of the development of a robotic snake was as a tool to be used on search and rescue missions. As one of the project members, Aksel Transeth, explained, real snakes “can climb rocks and slide through small holes.” It is hoped that a robot with these skills could be used “to find people in a fallen buildings.”

If Wheeko passes all the tests, what will its little brother, the future Martian colonist, be like? Actually, little brother will be different if for no other reason than he has a sidekick. Or, more accurately, he will be a sidekick. But, instead of playing sidekick to his fellow bumblebee colonists, Robo-snake will play sidekick to the more familiar Mars Rover. These vehicles are designed for off-roading in the rough Martian terrain. Yet, however carefully they are directed, they do have a tendency to get stuck. Enter Robo-snake. [image]

Instead of a lone player on the Martian surface, Robo-snake would be a deployable snake robot or an actual arm attached to the Mars Rover. The Rover vehicle could detach Robo-snake to investigate the nooks and crannies of the terrain while allowing the Rover to maintain a safe distance from areas in which the Rover might get stuck. And if the Rover gets stuck, one proposed design would turn Robo-snake into something like the Rover’s tentacle arm. Such an amazingly versatile arm would be able to both push and pull to extricate the Rover if caught in too tight a spot.

So, together, the bumblebees and the Robo-snake may be the first Martian colonists. Of course, they won’t be traveling together. NASA is interested in “Bumbles” and the ESA is interested in Robo-snake. But even if they don’t share the same flight to the red planet, they’ll probably meet when they get there. Right now, Mars isn’t that crowded.

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri




12 December 2013

[Nano Hummer Video]

On 17 February 2011, DARPA announced the development of the first fully functional robotic bird. [1]  The “Nano Hummingbird” or, as it is also less imaginatively called, the “Nano Air Vehicle” (“NAV”), was the successful result of a project started in 2006 by AeroVironment, Inc. under the direction of DARPA. [1] Robots, by definition, must “do work.”  And the Nano-Hummer was the first fully functional bird-drone designed and able to perform surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

This robotic hummingbird can remain aloft for 11 minutes and attain a speed of 11 mph. [1]   With a skeleton of hollow carbon-fiber rods wrapped in fiber mesh, coated in a polyvinyl fluoride film, [5] and carrying “batteries, motors, and communications systems; as well as the video camera payload,” the robo-hummer weighs just .67 ounces. [1]

Designed to be deployed in urban environments or on battlefields, this drone is can “perch on windowsills or power lines” and even “enter buildings to observe and its surroundings” while relaying a continuous video back to its “pilot.” [video] [1]

In terms of appearance, the Nano-Hummer was, and is, quite like a hummingbird.    Although larger than the typical hummingbird, Nano-Hummer, is well within the size range of the species and is, actually, smaller than the largest of real hummingbirds. [1]   With a facade both shaped and colored to resemble the real bird, the Nano-Hummer presents the viewer with a remarkable likeness of a hummingbird. [1]

The Nano-Hummer isn’t stealth in the sense of evading radar.  Nor is it “cryptic,” that type of camouflage that blends, or disappears, into the surrounding terrain.  Rather, with the appearance of a hummingbird, the designers used a type of camouflage called “mimesis,” also termed “masquerade,” as concealment.  A camouflaged object is said to be “masqueraded” when the object can be clearly seen, but looks like something else, which is of no special interest to the observer.  And such camouflage is important to a mini-drone with the primary purpose of surveillance and reconnaissance. [1]

Designing this drone on the “hummingbird model,” however, was not done only for the purpose of camouflage.  The project’s objective included biomimicry, that is, biologically inspired engineering. [8] With the hummingbird, its amazingly diverse flight maneuvers were the object of imitation.  However, UAV’s head researcher, Matt Keennon, admits that a perfect replica of what “nature has done” was too daunting. [5]  For example, the Nano-Hummer only beats its wings 20 times a second, which is slow motion compared to the real hummingbird’s 80 beats per second. [video] [5]

Whatever the technical shortfalls, this bird-bot replicates much of the real hummingbird’s flight performance. [5]  Not only can it perform rolls and backflips [video] but, most important of all, it can hover like the real thing. [video] [5]  Part of the importance of the ability hover relates to its reconnaissance and surveillance functions.  Hovering allows the video camera to select and observe stationary targets.  However, the “hover” of both hummingbirds and bees attracts so much attention from developers of drone technology because it assures success in the most difficult flight maneuver of all — landing.  In fact, landing is the most complex part of flight, and the maneuver most likely to result in accident or disaster.

When landing, a flying object must attain the slowest speed possible before touching down.  Hovering resolves the problem neatly by assuring that the robot can stop in midair and, therefore, touch the ground or perch as zero speed.  Observe the relatively compact helicopter landing port in contrast to the long landing strip required by an airplane which must maintain forward motion when airborne.

The drone has a remarkable range of movement in flight much like the real hummingbird. [1] Nano-Hummer “can climb and descend vertically; fly sideways left and right; forward and backward; rotate clockwise and counter-clockwise; and hover in mid-air.” [1]  Both propulsion and altitude control are entirely provided by the drone’s flapping wings. [video] [1]

This remote controlled mini-drone can be maneuvered by the “pilot” without direct visual observation using the video stream alone. [1] With its small camera, this drone can relay back video images of its location. [1] The camera angle is defined by the drone’s pitch.  In forward motion, the camera provides a continuous view of the ground.  Hovering provides the best camera angle for surveying rooms. [video] [5]

To DARPA, it was particularly important that this drone demonstrate the ability to hover in a 5 mph side-wind without drift of more than one meter. [1]  The CIA’s “insectothopter,” a robotic dragonfly was developed in the 1970’s. [image] [3] This unmanned aerial vehicle “was the size of a dragonfly, and was hand-painted to look like one.” [3]  Powered by a small gasoline engine, the insectothopter proved unusable due to its inability to withstand even moderate wind gusts. [video] [3]

The Nano-Hummingbird was named by Time Magazine as one of the 50 best inventions of 2011 [4] and has paved the way for the development of a whole generation of bird inspired ‘bots, including Prioria’s “Maverick,” [image] [video] and, the even more “bird-like,” Robo-Raven, which is still in development by the Army Research Laboratory. [image 1] [video] [video] Also, the development of this first small bird-bot brought the U.S. Air Force one step closer to one of the goals on its wish list: “flocks of small drones.” [7]

A flock of small drones sounds really cool – as long as the flock isn’t after me.

Tags: AeroVironment, Army Research Laboratory, biomimicry, Bird Robot, camouflage, cryptic, darpa, drone, grossman, grossmann, insectothopter, mark grossman, Mark Grossmann, Mark M Grossmann, Mark N Grossmann, Mark Q Grossmann, Mark R Grossmann, Mark U Grossmann, Mark V Grossmann, Mark X Grossmann, Mark Y Grossmann, Mark Z Grossmann, masquerade, Matt Keennon, Maverick, Mimesis, mini-drone, Nano Air Vehicle, Nano Hummingbird, NAV, Prioria, reconnaissance, Robo-Raven, Robot Bird, surveillance


Grossman: A Different Flavor – Just How Smart Are Octopuses?


28 November 2013

Octopuses have a rather creepy reputation.   Let’s just say that, what the creeping spider is to dry land, the eight-tentacled octopus is to the sea – a “monster” of the deep.  These creatures have thousands of suckers on their eight “arms,” squirt dark ink, change color, and can squeeze their, sometimes, large bodies through amazingly small holes.  Also, they can move when they want to move having the ability to propel themselves by producing a jet of water in the same way jet engines propel aircraft through the air.

The octopus is a celebrated predator.   Well equipped for the hunt, the octopus has a parrot-like beak, a tongue covered with teeth, and poisonous venom.  Superficially, there’s nothing about the octopus that would put anyone in a warm or cuddly mood.  But like some seemingly forbidding people you may have met, it seems that the better you get to know the octopus, the more favorable (and friendlier) your opinion becomes.

Scientists have recently discovered that octopuses might be intelligent – much more intelligent than anyone had ever suspected.  However, this is one of those discoveries that seems like “yesterday’s news.”  When you read accounts of octopus behavior, the fact that octopuses are intelligent is like the proverbial “elephant in the living room.”  How could anyone have missed it?

Consider Otto, an octopus resident at the Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany.  Otto shares a large tank with hermit crabs, which he probably traumatizes on a regular basis with his ideas of fun.  Among other activities, Otto likes to juggle the helpless crabs, throwing them, not in the air, but up above him into the tank’s water.  Being repeatedly tossed by a two-handed juggler would be bad enough, but you can only cringe at the thought of the experience with eight-hands.

Otto’s behavior isn’t particularly unusual.  In an experiment, Roland Anderson, gave octopuses small pill bottles, each of a different color, to evaluate the creatures’ color preferences. Most of the octopuses lost interest when they realized the bottles weren’t food, but one blew a “modulated” jet of water at the bottle sending it swirling to the other end of the tank and back to the sender – repeating this action 20 times.  Anderson compared the action to the human version of bouncing a ball.  Another octopus, in the same group, was caught using its water jet to propel its bottle back and forth over the surface of the water.

What’s so significant about all this?  It’s play.  Anderson’s observations appeared in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. “Only intelligent animals play—animals like crows and chimps, dogs and humans.”

Although, sometimes, Otto seems more like a candidate for the staring role in an upcoming documentary, “When Good Octopuses Go Bad,” he demonstrates a mastery of tool-use when he throws stones into front glass of his tank (damaging the aquarium glass several times).  In spite of Otto’s disruptions and vandalism, his behaviors are clearly intelligent.

Octopuses gather building materials as part of what is, sometimes, called their fortress behaviors.  These creatures tend to settle in a location and fortify the perimeter with a variety of building materials.  And, in the act of collecting these building materials, the octopus displays one of its most amazing characteristics.  Most animals either use or discard an item that is of no immediate use.  In other words, most animals have no ability to delay gratification and, therefore, do not appreciate the need to find, hold, or transport items that may be of value at a later time.

The Veined Octopus, however, retrieves discarded coconut shells, transports them over a distance, and reassembles them to build a shelter.  This behavior demonstrates selection of a tool and, then, holding the tool exclusively for a later use.

You might think of this behavior as resembling grocery shopping.  When you go to the store, you don’t eat the food you want straight off the shelves and, then, leave without taking any food with you.  Rather, you gather food, groceries, and take it home for future use.

And, it so happens that octopuses often gather food in a way not so different from human grocery shopping.  As it hunts, this creature picks up all the food it can carry and transports the load home.  It will eat the food, at its leisure, later.  With eight arms, an octopus can carry a lot of food, but sometimes its eyes are bigger than its eight-armed carrying capacity.  If it finds its load is too heavy for the trip home, it simply makes an unscheduled stop, eats its “groceries” down to a portable volume and, then, continues home with what’s left.

But octopuses demonstrate other intelligent behaviors.  They are also problem solvers. Wilson Menashi designed a puzzle consisting of three plexiglas cubes each with a different type of latch.  When food was placed in the first box and given to an octopus, the creature quickly managed to figure out how to open the box.  Then, the first box was locked in the second box.  Again, the octopus quickly learned to open both boxes to get to the food.  The same swift mastery followed the addition of a third box.  Sadly, when the octopus’s food of choice, crab, is unavailable, some octopuses turn their problem solving abilities to crime.  That is, octopuses sometimes rob lobster traps, which they learn to open with relative ease.

So, you would never want to snooze on the beach with a crab in your pocket.  That crab would be awfully tempting to passing octopus.  Oh, . . . you thought you’d be safe because you weren’t in the water?  Surprise!  Many octopuses seem never to have learned that they are sea-dwelling creatures.  They tend to jump onto land at the least provocation.

An octopus was recently, not just caught on land, but also caught on video grabbing a snack on the beach — completely out of the water.  These creatures like to eat crabs so much that they have been known to climb on board fishing boats, jump into containers of dead crabs, and pig-out. As a matter of fact, aquariums sometimes have difficulty keeping these creatures in the water.

Otto, for example, thought the overhead light in the Sea Star Aquarium was too bright, and his irritation was only relieved by occasional mysterious power failures.  While the failures gave Otto a break from the bright light, the cessation in the filtration systems in the aquarium’s tanks was a positive danger.  When the power outages became more frequent, the staff organized a stake-out of the area, day and night, to find the cause.  On the third night, Otto climbed out of his tank and directed his jet-stream of water at the irritating light above his tank and continued to do so until the system shorted and the power failed.  The light has been re-installed in a location beyond the range of Otto’s water-jet.

Octopuses frequently put their water-jets to other creative uses.  Octopus Truman of the New England Aquarium developed an aversion to one volunteer and used his water-jet to soak her with salt water at every opportunity.  She eventually quit her volunteer position, but returned for a visit a few months later.  As she entered the lab she was drenched in saltwater by Truman’s jet.  Apparently, Truman remembered her.  He had not sprayed anyone with water since her departure months earlier.

Researching her senior thesis in the octopus lab at Middlebury College, Alexa Warburton often struggled to remove reluctant octopuses from their tanks. The creatures had mastered all the skills I employed on a particular day when I tried to avoid attending the first grade.  The octopuses would hide in the corners of their tanks or hold on to objects and not let go. In fact, octopuses in captivity escape their tanks with great frequency.  When the creatures were removed from their tank, a few used the net as a kind of trampoline bouncing off the net and onto the floor.  Then, they’d make a run for it.  And they’d “run,” Warburton emphasized, “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat.”  “It’s so weird!”

When you understand how octopuses behave, it’s tough to understand how their intelligence could have been overlooked for so long.  Perhaps, in the past, science has been too physiologically minded.

For example, several species of birds have recently demonstrated remarkably high levels of intelligence and even self-awareness.  The last common ancestor of human beings and birds roamed the earth about 300 million years ago.  During the last 300 million years, the brains of birds and mammals developed along separate lines.  Scientists were sure that the mammalian brain’s neocortex made certain species, including human beings, self-aware (i.e., conscious).  Problem.  Several species of birds pass all the self-awareness tests with flying colors, but their brains are the size of walnuts and they have no neocortex.

Then, there’s the octopus.  Octopuses are mollusks, invertebrates, closely related to the clam.  Clams don’t even have brains.  The last common ancestor of human beings and octopuses lived between 500 and 700 million years ago.  From that point on, human and octopus brains developed along separate lines in quite different environments.  The octopus brain is about the size of a walnut with only about 130 million neurons compared to the 100 billion of the typical human brain.  However, you don’t need these numbers to see some staggering differences.  For example, humans have one brain, but “three-fifths of the octopus’s neurons” are in the octopus’s arms and not their “head.”  It seems that intelligence doesn’t have as much to do with brain size as was once supposed.

Perhaps, the intelligence of octopuses was overlooked because of their lack of social behavior.  These creatures are one of the most unsocial animals you could imagine.  Their contacts with their fellow creatures result in either one octopus eating the other or mating.  There are no other social encounters with their peers.  Period.  In the first instance, predation, one octopus dies when it’s eaten.  In the second, mating, both octopuses die because disorientation and death follow swiftly.

Much of our appraisal of the intelligence of any animal is based on observation of social interaction.  But, in the case of the unsocial octopus, you have to observe its relationship with its inanimate, physical environment to appreciate its intelligent behavior and evaluate the scope of its intelligence.  Strangely, the captive octopuses that are the subject of study in laboratories seem to enjoy a richer relationship with their human captors, than any of their own species.  But, perhaps, even this relationship is the simple result of the dependence of the captive octopuses on their human captors for survival (food).

Maybe it’s the plain strangeness of both the octopus and its intelligence that so long delayed the “discovery” of the creature’s intelligent behavior.  Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith compared encountering the octopus with “meeting an intelligent alien.”  And, indeed, everything seems so “out-of-whack” when you learn about the octopus.  For example, octopus communication is limited to changes of color.  An octopus uses color changes to camouflage itself, express emotions, and warn off (frighten) predators.  But the octopus’s use of a wide range of color displays becomes confusing when you discover that these creatures are colorblind.  But, then, you discover that octopus “skin contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye.”  So, octopuses may be able to see color with their skin.

In the end, what can we say about the octopus as an intelligent being?  It is an alien.  An immensely ancient alien that evolved on the ocean floor — the oldest and most enduring environment provided by the hydrosphere we call Earth.  However, “alien” is a relative term.  Compared to the octopus, we are the newcomers.  We are one of a group of strange, and relatively new, life forms that live on those limited peaks that rise above and beyond the more natural aquatic environment.  Those peaks rise up into a strange rarefied level of atmosphere—a level, not of water, but composed entirely of gases, nitrogen and oxygen.

As intelligent beings, we continue to confront the all too obvious evidence that “we are not alone.”  But I’m not talking about intelligent life on other planets.  “We are not alone” on our own planet.  The creatures around us have developed intelligence and self-awareness but, often, not “on our terms.”  These “others” have developed out of their own environmental and physiological roots.  Our planet is home to more and stranger environments (worlds) than we regularly or comfortably imagine.   It seems that intelligence and self-awareness are not a single, defined point at one end of a yard stick.  Rather, as Dr. Jennifer Mather of the University of Lethbridge suggests, intelligence and self-awareness may come “in flavors.”


Grossman: The Bumblebee and Robo-Snake on Mars – The Fantasy


14 November 2013

Both NASA and ESA (European Space Administration) are planning a mission to Mars.  But, in this day and age, who isn’t?  India is planning a Mars mission.  A Dutch company named, Mars One, isn’t just planning a mission, but a colony.  What’s interesting is how they plan to finance the mission.  The Mars One colonists’ transportation to, and colony on, the red planet will be financed by a reality show starring – you guessed it – the colonists, themselves, on Mars.  If this seems kind of “out there,” so is the planned departure date.  Their first group is scheduled leave about twenty years from now.

However the NASA and ESA missions are serious business because their potential colonists certainly have the right stuff.  NASA is considering bumblebees and the ESA is considering a robotic snake.  Amazingly, of all the possible candidates, the bees and the robotic snake seem most naturally suited to the challenges of life on Mars.

The rather rotund bumblebee wouldn’t “cut a good figure” in the astro-insect selection process, but appearances can be deceiving.  When NASA discovered that the ideal atmospheric pressure for space facilities was considerably below the normal pressure found on Earth, the search was on for the most adaptable contestants.  At the ideal atmospheric pressure of 52 kilopascals (kPa), human beings were burdened because this is only about half the sea level atmospheric pressure here on Earth.  Honeybees gave up completely at 62 kPa.  But “Bumbles” kept right on going – gathering honey and pollinating flowers at the ideal 52 kPa.  Below that pressure, “Bumbles” slowed down, but didn’t stop.  And when, at a meager 30 kPa, the bumblebees finally lost their ability to fly, they went on working!  Crawling from bloom to bloom, the bumblebees went on pollinating and gathering honey.  What can we say?  The few, the proud, the bumblebees!

Of course, Robo-Snake, as a robot, has few issues adapting physically to an alien environment.  A robotic snake will bring a specific skill to the red planet that a biological snake enjoys on earth – the remarkable ability to travel over and through certain types of almost impassable terrain.  Robo-Snake’s amazingly snake-like movement allows it to explore and investigate places that no human, conventional robot, or vehicle could go.  This ‘bot’s serpentine motion produces a kind of locomotion that allows it to travel almost anywhere without getting stuck.

While writing a previous post on this subject, my mind kept wandering to the sci-fi and fantasy possibilities.  Every time I though of a bumblebee and a robotic snake on Mars, I couldn’t help thinking what a good Disney movie that mission would make.  Of course, in actual fact, if they make the cut, “Bumbles” and “Robo-Snake” would be traveling to Mars on different missions sponsored by different space agencies.

But let’s forget the facts and stick to the fantasy.  I had to wonder: what if Bumbles and Robo-Snake teamed up on Mars to form one of those classic duos that are the stuff of sci-fi fantasy?  As I thought about the pair and their possible adventures on the red planet, I couldn’t help thinking in terms of those famous sci-fi fantasy teams of the past.

I imagine Bumbles and Robo-Snake wandering the Martian landscape in a feature film (or weekly episodes of a TV series) struggling to survive.  Of course, they stumble into adventure after adventure as they explore, not only the physical terrain, but discover unknown and exotic Martian flora and fauna.  Perhaps, other interplanetary visitors from other star systems would pop-in, from time to time, and confront the bee-snake team with novel challenges in which the duo’s unique relationship would lead them to a successful resolution.  Sort of like . . .

Sort of like the relationship between the Robinson family and the “General Utility Non-theorizing Environmental Control Robot, Model B9.”   The television show was the 1965 series, Lost in Space. Model B9, unimaginatively referred to as “Robot” by the cast members, had one of the most memorable lines in television, history — “Danger! Will Robinson! Danger!”

Maybe Bumbles and Robo-Snake could be stranded on Mars with a group of much less well adapted human companions (like the Mars One colonists).  Because Bumbles and Robo-Snake are uniquely adapted to the Martian environment, they would be well suited to the job of rescuing their hapless human companions who would, on a weekly basis, manage to fall into some kind of trouble or involve themselves in some kind of misadventure.

Maybe one of the colonists would play the role of Lost in Space’s subversive and, then, eccentrically silly Dr. Smith.  The new version of the Dr. Smith character might arrive with the Mars One colonists.  However, this Dr. Smith might be an agent from a rival TV network featuring a rival reality show.   His job is to assure that Mars One colonists’ own reality show suffers dismal ratings and cancellation.  Or, maybe even more darkly (but realistically), the new Dr. Smith might be an agent from Mars One itself.  If the Mars One reality show’s ratings don’t climb fast enough, the new Dr. Smith has been sent to “eliminate” the colonists swiftly and completely in order to accomplish a de facto cancellation.

Of course, Bumbles and Robo-Snake will be there to foil Dr. Smith’s mission and rescue the colonists while forging an even more successful TV series about a bumblebee and robotic snake.  This assures the survival of the human colonists after the unexpected cancellation of their reality show.  However, “Danger, Bumbles.  Danger.” might be too cliché to recycle, so there needs to be some work on a new script for this new “non-reality” show.

Lost in Space’s Model B9’s fame was great, but its career was limited.  Like the original Star Trek cast, B9 found itself hopelessly typecast.  After suffering a relatively short downward spiral, rescue and repair came from TV and film producer Kevin Burns with whom the B9 enjoys a comfortable, private and, even, reclusive retirement.   Because of the attention and adulation B9 receives from nostalgic fans, Kevin Burns commissioned the creation of a B9 “clone” – a replica that is displayed on tours and at conventions.

Less known is the story of B9’s stunt man or, rather, stunt robot.  In fact, two versions of B9 were built for the original TV series.  The other, just as imaginatively, termed “stunt robot” was featured in distance “or hazardous shots.”  Like the star, after the series ended, the stunt double fell into a downward spiral of disrepair until it was rescued and refurbished by the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, in Seattle Washington, where it enjoys a more public retirement to this day.

B9 was created by mechanical designer Robert Kinoshita.  With such talents, wouldn’t it have been great if Kinoshita had designed other movie robots?  It would, and he did.  In fact, Robert Kinoshita designed, perhaps, the première sci-fi robot of all time.

Right after the brooding and reclusive Dr. Mobius unlocked the most basic secrets of the Krell, in the 1956 film, Forbidden Planet, he built Robby the Robot.  But let’s not get too far ahead of our story.

How could this play out with our own film duo? In our version of the story, Bumbles, with the help of Robo-Snake, discover the secrets of an ancient and extinct Martian civilization.  In the process, they unleash a mysterious force of which they, themselves, are unaware.  After the human colonists fall victim to a mysterious predator, Bumbles is left alone, with her faithful robot snake sidekick, to pursue her investigations in the solitude she loves.

Years later, a rescue ship arrives with a small crew of humans and (appropriately) a contingent of bumblebees.  “Bumbles” warns the rescue ship’s crew not to land on the surface because of a mysterious danger – the nature of which Bumbles herself does not consciously understand.   Of course, there could be a romantic subtheme.  Perhaps, like Morbius, Bumbles could have a single daughter bee who is wooed by a drone bee from the rescue ship.

However, I don’t know if Robo-Snake could equal the sheer range of Robby.  That robot could do almost everything.  Certainly, Robby kept pace with Star Trek’s replicator when it created a large quantity of hard liquor at the request of one of the rescuing crew members.

Whatever the storyline, Robo-Snake faces a major challenge if it is to step into the shoes of the famous Robby the Robot.  After raising the bar for all movie robots with his first 1956 performance, Robby went on to a remarkable career.  He escaped being typecast in Forbidden Planet (although, with robots, some typecasting is unavoidable).  To his credit, Robby has worked consistently in Hollywood including appearances on The Doby Gillis Show, The Twilight Zone (3 episodes), Hazel, The Addams Family, Lost in Space, The Monkeys, Wonder Woman, Mork and Mindy, The Love Boat, a cameo appearance in Gremlins and, most recently, in a 2012 General Electric commercial.

Robby enjoys a semi retirement in the collection of William Malone.  Robby’s early career was marred by the same harassment from adoring fans that so many other stars have suffered.  Souvenir-hunting fans, twice, roughed Robby up so badly that he had to be refurbished.  On both occasions, original spare parts created for the film Forbidden Planet were called into service to restore Robby to the perfect physical health typical of a well maintained robot.  But back, again, to our bee-snake team.

Let’s not limit our vision.  What if the Bumbles and Robo-Snake combination generates a successful film or series?  What next?  Would a spin-off be in order?  The real Robo-Snake is being considered as a sidekick, but not to a bee or human being.  Instead. Robo-Snake is being developed to assist another robotic device — The Mars Rover.

To its credit, the Mars Rover is an amazingly well-engineered vehicle.  However, no matter how serviceable, it has a daunting task — to be operated by remote control as it navigates a rough and rocky terrain.  The result is that Mars Rovers usually end their serviceable careers by getting permanently stuck.  Is there a solution?  Enter Robo-Snake.

The Robo-Snake that may eventually go to Mars will have one of two possible configurations.  It will either travel with the Rover as a portable robot to be released to investigate nooks and crannies too small for the Rover as well as areas in which the Rover is more likely to get stuck.  The other design would permanently attach Robo-Snake to the Rover as a kind of arm – or more picturesquely – a kind of tentacle.  The Robo-Snake arm, if long enough, could reach out to examine all those nooks and crannies, while also performing other functions as well  Maybe, the most important “other function” would be as an arm to help the Rover get un-stuck, after it squeezes itself into too tight a spot.  In fact, the tentacle-like arm could grab nearby objects to help pull the Rover free of an obstruction or push the Rover out of a tight spot.

However, from an entertainment standpoint, the Rover and his pet Robo-Snake, as a team, would defy the conventional wisdom that robots are not all that interesting in leading roles.  With only two robots, how interesting could the relationship be?  When have just a couple of robots, alone, entertained anyone?

Well, it happened at least once.  R2-D2 and C3PO formed the ideal, model relationship for our Rover – Robo Snake team.  With the Rover designed as an all terrain vehicle and the Snake designed to behave . . . like a snake, there are bound to be temperamental or, rather, programming differences between the two, just as there were differences between the effervescent R2-D2 and the diplomatic C3PO.  I can imagine a constant dialog between the Snake and Rover warning, admonishing, and critiquing (if not nagging) each other over every petty detail of their mission in a style uniquely pioneered by the Star Wars robotic duo.

Aside from the progressive improvement in the quality of special effects, the introduction of R2-D2 and C3PO brought an entirely new dimension to the portrayal of robots on screen.  While sci-fi aficionados will point, quite accurately, to the distinct personal eccentricities and mannerisms of almost every movie and television robot, the robotic Star Wars duo left subtlety out of the equation displaying quite decidedly dimensioned personality traits.

R2-D2, the small message carrying droid of the first (or is it the IVth) Star Wars film, introduced Luke Skywalker to, at least, the image of Princess Leia.  Then, R2D2 led the future Jedi Knight to his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  R2-D2 is always accompanied by C3PO, a “protocol droid” developed to assist in matters of “etiquette, customs, and translation”   And it is this last ability, translation, that defined C3PO’s role in relation to R2-D2 who, while occasionally uttering surprisingly understandable whistles and chirps, had no human language capabilities.  C3PO translated R2D2’s statements for the benefit of human listeners (and audiences).  The two displayed an almost childlike relationship.  They engaged in busy conversations and seemed to be on the verge of bickering rather than chatting most of the time.

The rather sophisticated character development of these robots, in contrast to earlier robotic film stars, was illustrated by actor Anthony Daniels’ refusal to take the offered role of C3PO.  After all, what actor would want the limited role of a robot?  However, after reading the script, Daniels accepted the role realizing the substance and range offered by the robotic performance.

Likewise, R2D2 was more than a prop — even behind the scenes.  Portraying Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor said, “As soon as R2-D2 comes on the set, everyone goes a bit silly.”  McGregor said that the small robot inspired affection.  It surely did with no less than George Lucas who has said that R2D2 was his favorite character.

The Robot Hall of Fame was created in 2003 by Carnegie Mellon University “to recognize excellence in robotics technology.”  Since then, a number of real and fictional robots have been induced:

Robby the Robot inducted 2004

R2-D2 inducted 2003

C3PO inducted 2004

To its shame, the Robot Hall of Fame has yet to induct B9 of Lost in Space.  In my opinion, this is a glaring (and almost unforgivable) omission.  B9 was not even among the candidates considered in 2012.  However, in an NBC People’s Choice Poll, B9 received many write-in votes.  More surprising was a respectable showing in the same poll by the animated robot “Bender” from Futurama.  Even as a fan of that series, I must confess that, to win induction, a robot should at least rise to some standards.  Unfortunately, Bender takes pride in sinking below them all.

What would my favorite Cinderella robotic candidate be?  Well, if I had to pick, it would be Red Dwarf’s “Kryten” portrayed by Robert Llewellyn.

And so, dear reader, I will end with the obvious question:  What or who is your pick as the best sci-fi fantasy robot of all time?

Tags: Anthony Daniels, B9, bee, Bender, bumblebee, bumblebees, C3PO, Ewan McGregor, Forbidden Planet, Futurama. Red Dwarf, General Utility Non-theorizing Environmental Control Robot, George Lucas, grossman, grossmann, Kevin Burns, Krell, Kryten, Lost in Space, mark grossman, Mark Grossmann, Mark M Grossmann, Mark N Grossmann, Mark Q Grossmann, Mark R Grossmann, Mark U Grossmann, Mark V Grossmann, Mark X Grossmann, Mark Y Grossmann, Mark Z Grossmann, Mars One, Mobius, Model B9, R2-D2, Robby the Robot, Robert Kinoshita, Robert Llewellyn, Robo-snake, robot snake, sci-fi fantasy, Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, snake, snake robot, Star Wars, The Robot Hall of Fame, William Malone


Grossman: The “Land Shark,” The “Land Catfish” & The “Land Octopus”


31 October 2013

Decades ago, the film, Jaws, was credited with terrifying movie goers to the point that they avoided beaches for fear of being attacked by a real version of the film’s animatronic great white shark. [image] [1] Then, there was a sequel with promotional trailers warning:  “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” [image] But at least you were safe on dry land.  Right?

Saturday Night Live’s writers decided to take away that last refuge of safety by presenting a predator that could strike on land or sea.  In 1975, the first in a series of SNL sketches featured a hapless urban dweller who hears a knock on their front door.  When the caller is asked to identify themselves, a voice on the other side of door says “repair man” or “door-to-door salesman.”  Then, when the door is opened, in plunges the “Land Shark” (or a giant foam rubber version of the “Land Shark”), which completely consumes the victim. [2] [image] [video]

Well, the Land Shark was just a joke.  Wasn’t it?

It was.  But, like more than a few fictional, on-screen characters, the Land Shark seems to have an imitator.

Just when you thought it was safe to go near the water?

Catfish in France have learned to hunt pigeons. [3] [4] Fishermen on the France’s River Tarn were more than shocked to witness catfish “loitering in shallow water near sandbars populated by pigeons.”  When one of the birds wandered too near the water line, it was a “Land Shark” experience for the bird and a meal for the catfish. [video]

When Julien Cucherousset of Paul Sabatier University heard the story from the bewildered fisherman, he captured footage of the “event.”   The on-line video went viral. The first time I saw the video, my reaction was almost that of an academic naturalist.  “How fascinating,” I thought.

At least, I thought it was fascinating until I learned that these catfish were three to four feet long.  So, I am only about 2 feet longer that the largest of these “Land Catfish.”  My next thought?  Would I . . . ?  Yes, I assured myself.   I’d win — if caught in a shoreline struggle with an overly aggressive four-foot catfish.  Then, I reflected.  Suppose I was sick and weak that day?  I didn’t try to answer that question.  I just . . .  thought of something else.  [5]

At first, I was comforted by the fact that this particular species of catfish wasn’t native to France, but had been introduced to the Tarn River about 30 years ago.  I imagined some weird, predacious species of catfish from the depths of the Amazonian jungle had been imported and accidentally released into the river.  But, when the full story unfolded, it turned out that these were just plain old catfish.  And they had been intentionally released into the river. [6]

Over the last three decades, the waters of the Tarn became less populated with crayfish and other smaller fish.  So, the catfish began feeding on land prey — a behavior no member of its species is known to have engaged in before.  These fish hover under the water near the shore watching their prospective, terrestrial prey.  Then, when an opportune moment presents itself, they leap out of the water onto the dry land, grab their prey, and leap back into the water taking there land-dwelling victim with them.  Then, the “Land Catfish” enjoys a leisurely meal in its underwater home. [7]

Autopsies of the catfish in the area revealed that not all of the fish were eating pigeons.  However, those that were tended to abandon their old diet of crayfish and other small fish focusing more exclusively on land prey.  [8]

Somehow, I found the casual way in which these animals extended their hunting range disconcerting.   But more disturbing was the autopsy’s suggestion that some fish had developed a taste for land animals — ignoring their old fare of crayfish and other small fish to focus almost entirely on pigeons.  As a land-based mammal who enjoys strolling along the shores of natural bodies of water, I’m still not entirely comfortable with these developments.

One writer, attempting to minimize the strangeness of it all, noted that African crocodiles jump out of the water and grab zebras.   And whales beach themselves on the ice to nab penguins for dinner.  But these are hardly apt comparisons.  Crocks and alligators are air-breathing lizards.  They just hang-out in the water.  Whales are also air-breathing mammals who have adopted a fish-like lifestyle. [9]

Neither of these examples could compare to a plain old fish intentionally jumping out of the water to grab some terrestrial creature, drag it into the water, and eat it.  I’ve watched scenes like this in old horror movies.  I’ve always loved to stroll along the shore of almost any waterway, but is it safe?  Where I live, my favorite body of water is the Mississippi River.  After seeing this video, I checked.  The Mississippi is teaming with catfish – those same enterprising, opportunistic, and hungry sea-beasts that are scarfing down pigeons in France!

On calmer reflection, I realized that the Land Catfish is actually engaged in the mirror image of human sea diving.  Somehow, I’d always thought that land creatures dived into the water to feed on unsuspecting sea creatures.  Not the other way around.  And human beings had the distinction of being the only creature that could learn to dive into the water for food (and maybe a few pearls).  Now, the Land Catfish has turned the tables on us.

But the Land Catfish isn’t the only sea creature that feels free to promenade out onto the dry land to pick up a meal.

A few decades ago, I remember strolling along a Sarasota beach at midnight — my feet kicking through the white sand.  In those distant days, you could still find yourself quite alone on the beach at night.  Absolutely taken with the beauty of the Gulf, I remember thinking how nice it would be to just stretch out on the sand and sleep in the cool breeze off the water until sunrise.

All those years ago, I would still have been quite safe from human interference, but I would never have thought of the possibility of something coming up out of the sea.  I can imagine the psychological trauma I would have experienced if, in the middle of that peaceful night’s sleep, I had stirred awake and opened my eyes to see an eye looking back at me:  the “dominant eye” of a local octopus.  The creature wouldn’t have been interested in me. It would have just been “passing by.”  But, after an experience like that, I would have moved to the top of a mountain — as far away from the water’s edge as I could get.

Not long after I saw the “Land Catfish” video, a story broke about a “Land Octopus.”  The terrestrial excursions of the octopuses have stayed pretty much out of the public eye until recently when one of these strange creatures was caught in the act – on video. [video]  An octopus was seen grabbing lunch, not while roaming where it belongs – underwater — but, instead, crawling around on the beach casually grabbing a few snacks.  The witnesses got a video camera and the rest is internet history.  [10]

How long has this sort of thing been going on, I wondered?  Well, octopuses have been doing this since . . . forever.

The Land Octopus starring in the San Mateo County, California video was not engaged in any particularly unusual behavior.  Marine biologist James Wood explained that several species of octopuses make brief forays onto land for a meal. [11]  Most discomforting was his explanation of why the public is so ignorant of this particular octopus behavior.  Octopuses leave the water all the time.  They just do it when they won’t be seen.  Wood explained that most octopuses are nocturnal, sneaking out of the water at night to enjoy their meals unobserved. [12]  Well, with this factoid, my nocturnal seashore walks are over.

The octopus caught on video was probably engaged in the octopus version of grocery shopping.  Julian Finn, a senior curator of marine invertebrates at the Museum Victoria in Australia explained that octopuses frequently emerge and hunt in tidal pools when the tidal waters recede.  The octopus examines these “grocery shelves” either with its eyes, (octopuses have rather good vision), or feel for food with its outstretched arms (tentacles?). [13]

However, not so typically, the cephalopod shopper in this video is seen discarding an empty crab shell during its shopping spree — after eating the occupant.  Either this octopus was particularly hungry and couldn’t wait to get home, with the crab serving as a kind of fast food snack or, even with eight arms, carrying all those groceries got to be too taxing.  If the “groceries” get too heavy, octopuses often stop and eat their way to a lighter load. [14]

However, shopping isn’t the only thing that brings octopuses out of the water and onto dry land.  Finn explained that octopuses also “lurch” out of the water onto land to escape danger.  Wood recalled an incident in which he was chasing and photographing a common octopus “when it crawled out of the water, across eight feet of rocks and went back into the water” apparently hoping this maneuver would confuse the pursuing photographer. [15]

Mercifully, octopuses aren’t interested in eating people.  Hostile interactions between octopuses and people happen when the octopus perceives a person as a threat rather than as a potential meal.

Still, even if I’m not on the menu, I wouldn’t like to encounter an octopus as I was strolling or resting on dry land.  Imagine if I’d paused to catch my breath on that eight foot expanse of rocks when the Land Octopus jumped out of the water in its attempt to shake the pursuing James Wood.  After literally running into an octopus on dry land, you can bet that it would be a long time before I thought it was safe to go anywhere near the water.

Tags: catfish, catfish eat pigeons, catfish hunt pigeons, great white shark, grossman, grossmann, James Wood, Jaws, Julian Finn, Julien Cucherousset, Land Shark, land-walking octopus, mark grossman, Mark Grossmann, Mark M Grossmann, Mark N Grossmann, Mark Q Grossmann, Mark R Grossmann, Mark U Grossmann, Mark V Grossmann, Mark X Grossmann, Mark Y Grossmann, Mark Z Grossmann, octopus, octopus crawls on land, octopus crawls out of water, octopuses, Paul Sabatier University, pigeon, River Tarn, Saturday Night Live, SNL