Robot Petting Zoo

About the Robot Petting Zoo (trademark pending)

As part of our educational mission and public outreach, CRASAR created and offered the first disaster Robot Petting Zoo at the 2012 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing based on feedback from our interactive exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum in 2011. The Robot Petting Zoo was most recently staged at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials in December 2013 to over 3,000 people. The next Robot Petting Zoo will be at SXSW and organized by the Field Innovation Team, a member of CRASAR’s Roboticists Without Borders program (and CRASAR is a member of FIT) and at the IEEE  Our next event is at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals in June 2014 with an expected attendance of over 7,000 people.


The main concept is to educate the public on robotics, especially disaster robotics,  through three novel ideas

  1. making an analogy between the robots and animals (the zoo part)
  2. hands-on interaction with the robots (the petting part)
  3. bring robots that are actually used in disasters so that people can learn about the surprising realities of rescue robotics

We strive to create portable, inexpensive exhibits with a readily engaging theme. FIT has gone further with the staging for SXSW by creating 10×10 “pens” for the robots and instructional plaques, just like those outside a zoo exhibit.

Use and Expand: Just Let Us Know

While all of our materials are copyrighted, please feel free to use the exhibit designs, weblinks, and information- just let us know so that we can tell the National Science Foundation who has sponsored the purchase of most of the robots. NSF loves it when we can reuse research for public education, so help them love us more! Plus please free to share your own Zoo exhibits so that we can create a community of robo-educators!

Please Donate!

Our Robot Petting Zoos have been totally supported by donations and grants plus volunteer students (and companies) who spend weeks helping think up new exhibits and learning to be Zookeepers. We are always looking for travel money and money for new exhibits. Each exhibit costs an average of $400 plus the robots which run from $30K to $78K.

The link to online donations is at

Disaster Robot-Animal Analogy

Each robot has its own ecological niche. Instead of evolving to be able to perform a particular task (usually some variant on eating, reproducing, and fight or flight) fit a particular environment, robots are designed by engineers. One of the challenges is that engineers have is we don’t know all the tasks that robots can be used for or how to categorize the environment for small robots. We engineers have mostly considered how people fit in their environments (we build houses for them!) and how big machines like cars work.

Animals and robots can be thought of having five systems:

  1. Effectors: the appendages and joints that let us move our arms, legs, neck, etc.  Robots typically have tracks, wheels,  propellers, or thrusters to make them mobile. Pan and tilt mounts act as “necks” for cameras and sensors. Did you know that robot hands are called “manipulators”?
  2. Sensors: animals have five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing). Most robots have sight and maybe hearing like a bat but not smell, touch (which is called tactile or haptic sensing), and taste. Nothing can be a canine for smell so usually canines smell a survivor in the rubble, then responders use the robot to locate where the survivor is because the smell may be wafting out of the rubble far away.
  3. Power: animals eat while most disaster robots use batteries.  Batteries are preferred because the robots can be shipped in airplanes to disasters. If an internal combustion engine is used, then the robot engine has to be completely clean in order to ship, which is very hard.  You may see a “litter box” of sand for robots. This means the robot has a powerful Lithium Polymer battery (LiPo) that could get dangerously hot if damaged and start a fire. If that happens, we cover the battery in sand, and let the battery cool down by making glass out of the sand! (We’ve never had that happen to us.)
  4. Control: animals have central nervous systems and brains, robots have wires and computers. The computer may be onboard or it may be in the Operator Control Station. Some robots are controlled both by themselves and with a human operator. For example, an unmanned aerial system has a central nervous system- it’s flight control system that automatically keeps it in the air, returns to home if it loses communications,  auto-lands, etc.  But some models have the human operator as the “brain” deciding where the UAS should go to next and where to look or take pictures. Other models try to make the UAS with a complete brain as well as central nervous system.Building brains is hard. Here’s a rule of thumb: if it’s easy for a human, it’s hard for a robot. If it’s hard for a human, it’s easy for a robot.People are great at seeing, walking, and picking up things. Robots tend to be very slow and clunky because robots don’t have the same sensors or nearly the same types of structures in the central nervous system and brain. People are terrible at rapidly computing advanced mathematics in their heads, but robots can do that in milliseconds.
  5. Communications: animals explicitly communicate with each other through talking, singing bird songs and whale songs, and making noise but also by implicit cues such as staring at each other (or not looking), poses and gestures such as rolling over and exposing their bellies, and so on. Robots communication is usually divided into the communication medium (the mechanism of communication) and what they say (content). Most UAS communicate through wireless networks—robots use cellphones and wi-fi!) but most ground robots communicate through a fiber optic tether because the metal and debris in building collapses, mine disasters, and nuclear plants interfere with wireless.

Exhibit List




Extreme Babies