R2-D2, NASA Rover, Others Enter Robot Hall of Fame

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 11, 2003

Last night, an elite crowd gathered at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, awards ceremony where the acceptable dress code ranged from black tie to anodized aluminum.

The event was the inaugural Robot Hall of Fame induction ceremony held at the Carnegie Science Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Four robots were judged to have the "right stuff" this year: The Unimate robot arm and the Mars Pathfinder "Sojourner" rover were inducted in the real science category, while R2-D2 and HAL9000 of Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey fame were honored in the science fiction category.

"We favored robots that had achieved 'firsts' or had affected our thinking deeply," said James H. Morris, dean of the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and a key organizer of the hall of fame.

The honor was established earlier this year to recognize great robots from both science and science fiction. The institution celebrates visionary ideas and the benefits that the machines and their creators offer modern society.

"Along with their more exotic endeavors, the robotics community is working on the real problem of digitizing our world for the betterment of us all," said Morris. "They and their creations deserve recognition."

Celebrating Robotic Pioneers

Joseph F. Engelberger, the so-called "father of robotics," accepted Hall of Fame honors for his creation, Unimate—the first industrial robot.

Drawing on postwar technology, the robotic arm was deployed on a General Motors assembly line in 1961. Unimate worked with heated die casting machines and performed other hot, dangerous, or distasteful jobs. It spawned the development of modern industrial robots and revolutionized how cars are manufactured today.

"The Unimate robot arm was one of the first programmable devices that worked in factories in a cost-effective way," Morris said.

"It's kind of nice to see that the beginning is going to be recognized," Engelberger said. "I happen to be much more interested in the future, but referring back to the early days is pleasant."

The most avant-garde robot honored last night was the Mars Pathfinder Microrover Flight Experiment (MFEX), better known as "Sojourner." (Since the original remains on the Red Planet, a replica will be installed in the Hall of Fame.) The pioneering Mars explorer was the first device to perform autonomously on another planet.

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