Prototype cooperative cleaning robot, 'Flo', metal / plastic / electronic components, developed and made at the Department of Systems Engineering, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, 1998-1999
Robotics is a field of mechanical automation and computing that has fascinated scientists and the general public alike since the sixteenth century, when some clever automata were developed by Jacques de Vaucanson in France. It is an area of technology that has become as much a part of popular culture as it has of industry.
This robot, Flo, was designed and modified for a project in which the primary purpose was to establish a cooperative relationship between two robots - Flo, and her partner robot, Joh. The team working on the project used studies in cooperative relationships in the animal kingdom - bacteria, ants, wolves, primates, and human beings (particularly inquiry into altruism - why do biological organisms cooperate?) - to inform their software and hardware design for the robots. Flo and Joh's task was to sweep the laboratory floor. Flo has a sweeper attached to her, and negotiates the lab with whisker sensors; Joh has a vacuum cleaner attachment, and negotiates and identifies Flo's piles of dust via a camera. The team developed several ways for the robots to cooperate. Emergent cooperation was used first; this involved Flo and Joh having no awareness of the other robot, hence no real cooperation other than performing one aspect of a two phase task. This experiment produced rather haphazard cleaning results. The second experiment utilised passive observation. Joh used his camera to identify Flo, so he would know where the piles of dust would be. The results of this proved a much more efficient means of cooperation. The third experiment involved the robots using visual communication, as well as communicating electronically via modems. Joh can see where Flo is, and Flo can tell Joh where she will be sweeping next. This experiment proved highly efficient; and also that robots can interact with each other, or with humans in sophisticated and intelligent ways.
The object represents a stage in robotics that has advanced from programming and mechanically automating robots to developing relatively independent thinking and moving robots - such as Honda's Asimo robot.
Damian McDonald, Curator
The Flo cleaning robot was designed and made by Dr Alexander Zelinsky, initially in Japan, where Dr Zelinsky was working, then further developed at The University of Wollongong in New South Wales. Australia, and then finally, as part of a cooperative robot project with another robot, Joh, at The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.
The Flo robot was designed and assembled in Japan when Dr Alexander Zelinsky was researching robotics there. His theories, and Flo, were then taken to the University of Wollongong, and then to the Australian National University where the experiments in cooperative robotics featuring Flo, and her partner Joh, were performed and documented. In 1999, Flo was lent to the Powerhouse Museum for the 'Universal Machine' exhibition, where she has been on display for for the duration of the exhibition. Flo was formally donated to the Powerhouse Museum in 2011.