Article: Minerva, The Robotic Tour Guide :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Heather Bruce, Lemelson Center Communications Specialist
Minerva led tours of an exhibit at the National Museum of American History. Photo courtesy Sebastian Thrun

Minerva, an intelligent, mobile robot, guided visitors on a tour through the Material World exhibit at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) from August 24 through September 5, 1998.

Museum visitors had an opportunity to meet Minerva's creators at a special "Meet the Inventors" program on August 27. And in a special, live Internet event that day, people around the world saw through Minerva's eyes and asked her to take a closer look at parts of the exhibit.

You can still see Minerva in motion at Minerva's home page.

Equipped with computers, sensors, laser range finders, and a module that enables her to avoid collisions, Minerva can perceive her environment and learn about various aspects of it, just like people do. She can detect the presence of people, approach them and invite them to join her as she glides through the exhibit area. She'll stop at several displays and comment on their contents. Visitors can attract Minerva's attention by clapping their hands or by pressing a touch-sensitive screen attached to her body.

A young visitor to the Deutsches Museum Bonn gives Rhino instructions. Photo courtesy Sebastian Thrun

The robot's body was built by Real World Interface, Inc., (Jaffrey, NH). Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the University of Bonn in Germany have given her the intelligence and other capabilities needed to interact with people and operate in the Museum environment. 

"The purpose of this demonstration is to introduce people to a new generation of intelligent robots," says Sebastian Thrun, assistant professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon. "In the past, robots were inflexible, predominantly employed on assembly lines and in factory settings. An intelligent service robot like Minerva is a new phenomenon, with implications for health care, janitorial services, surveillance and entertainment. Robots are beginning to make an impact on more than industry and science. They're beginning to make an impact on our everyday lives.'

A team of 10 researchers collaborated to develop Minerva. This same team developed her predecessor, Rhino, the original tour guide robot, installed at the Deutsches Museum in Bonn in 1997.

Sebastian Thrun with Rhino at the Deutsches Museum Bonn. Photo courtesy Sebastian Thrun

A Material World is an exhibition of more than 400 artifacts, both hand-crafted and machine-made, that illustrates how materials, such as wood, metals and synthetics, have influenced the way we live. The objects, designed for the household, for the workplace and for recreational pursuits, are displayed on the Museum's first floor.

Minerva is featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education: To learn more about Minerva and see photos of her in action at the Museum, click here!

Originally published in Fall 1998.

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