blubberbot Escape of the Blubber Bots

Berk’s Blubber Bots keep trying to escape. During an exhibit in an empty cold-storage space, one wandered out the front door never to be seen again. At a recent workshop in Los Angeles, another made a slow break for the back stairs.

These elusive Blubber Bot entities are autonomous robotic blimps. Roughly 3 feet long, their helium-filled mylar balloon bodies are propelled by ultralight motorized fans. Simple light sensors send them in the direction of the brightest light source in view, and a set of bump sensors tells them to turn around if they run into something.

Blubber Bots also enjoy “networking” while drifting around gently bumping into things — an off-the-shelf detector of cellphone signals causes them to whirl around and produce tones inspired by the songs of whales. Wave your cellphone at one to say hello! In a space with a ceiling high enough for a pack, they can drift about almost unnoticed, like a sneaky group of cartoon clouds.

Blubber Bots are one of Jed Berk’s several projects inspired by natural life forms, which he calls TransitionalSpecies. These sculptures possess simple behaviors, emulate interspecies communication, and model processes of biological systems. In groups, they create “biotopes” — environments where people can become part of a temporary ecosystem with these new electronic organisms.

Berk’s interest in working with art and technology started while attending graduate school at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. While working together in a class taught by Bruce Sterling, Berk and fellow student Nikhil Mitter collaborated with architect/software designer Ewan Branda to develop Autonomous Light Air Vessels (ALAVs), the ancestors of the Blubber Bots.

Based on Sun Microsystems’ wireless microcontroller development system Sun SPOT, the ALAVs grew out of an interest in matching independent robots with compact wireless communication technology. ALAVs use a node-based wireless network to travel in flocks, communicate with people using voice recognition, and exhibit a sophisticated range of behaviors including feeding, scattering, and courtship. One of the more intriguing features is the “happiness factor” — the flock’s altitude, sounds, and light activity depend on interrelated variables that constitute their general sense of well-being.

If the ALAVs are a school of networked dolphins, the Blubber Bots are more like a pack of napping manatees — drifting along toward light sources and turning around if they bump into something.

Developed with artist/biologist/systems designer Bruce Hubbard, the activity of a pack of Blubber Bots is a model of emergent behavior, the process by which complicated or unpredictable patterns can emerge from simple tropisms, such as being attracted to light or turning away when bumped into. Pack behavior emerges on its own, without the need for communication between units.

In response to the many inquiries he received after exhibiting the ALAVs at conferences and art exhibits and on the Discovery Network, Berk developed a blimp kit that anyone with a soldering iron can put together. The current version is available B.Y.O.H. (Bring Your Own Helium) from the Maker Store (store.makezine.com).

In addition to the basic Blubber Bot, Berk plans some interesting branches of the family tree. One version uses all surface mount components and will be the size of a standard party balloon — all the better for casually infiltrating living rooms and small apartments.

Another version in development with USC professor Julian Bleecker will provide code modules for Arduino, the microcontroller development environment used to program the brains of the Blubber Bots. With a set of publicly available code modules, programming your own behavior for the Blubber Bot will be much easier, and the Blubber Bot species can continue to evolve new ways of relating to the world. Berk and Bleecker hope this will be a big step in the creation of an open source platform for blimp robotics.

In the end, the only limit to this new species may be the availability of helium. The U.S. Department of the Interior reports that demand is outstripping supply, and shortages of high-grade helium have occurred. But standard-grade helium is still easily found at party stores, florists, and elsewhere — meaning there’s plenty to float a fleet of robotic blimps in your living room.

Jed Berk’s Blubber Bots: degree119.com

Mark Allen

Mark Allen is the founding director of Machine Project, a Los Angeles art and event space dedicated to exploring the connections between art, science, technology, music, and literature.


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