- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 5, 2000

The nuts-and-bolts of the animal world are, quite literally, explained at the Robot Zoo.
The Robot Zoo is a temporary display in Explorers Hall at the National Geographic Society. The free exhibit, which runs through January, takes some of the mysteries of the animal kingdom and illustrates them with building materials. On the half-dozen human-size animal robots, muscles are pistons, intestines are pipes, and brains are computers.
"We want children to get a sense of how complicated animals really are," says Rich McWalters, National Geographic's manager of exhibits. "To see an animal as a robot and compare the parts makes it more understandable to people familiar with today's technology. Nature is a master engineer, and we have copied some of nature's designs to show the biomechanics of these animals."
A trip through the Robot Zoo begins with a look at a 7-foot-tall giraffe and a nearly life-size robot rhinoceros built on the scale of a 3,500-pound rhino. Visitors can operate handles that realistically move the rhino's elbows and knees. Springs and shock absorbers act like muscles and give the animal a spring in his step.
Air and liquid power the giant squid, a huge, elusive sea creature that never has been seen alive. The giant squid station contains four posts for children to pump air, giving the robot squid, which resembles a 60-foot-long tentacled vacuum cleaner, the same sort of jet propulsion his live counterpart needs for high-speed swimming.
In the ocean, the squid sucks water into its body cavity, then expels it from a funnel in its head, shooting backward at up to 20 miles per hour, the exhibit explains.
The robot bat, as big as a man, hangs upside down and is covered in synthetic fur. Lightweight tubes mimic the wings' "fingers," the devices that enable the bat to glide in the sky.
A housefly as big as a Honda Civic is part of the exhibit. His large compound eyes are illustrated by hundreds of "eyelets" made up of small pipes. Other, smaller flies are in other exhibit areas.
The color-changing ability of the chameleon is illustrated through computer graphics. Visitors can manipulate the chameleon's background to discover how it changes colors to blend in or stand out.
The exhibit also is packed with arcade-style games that explain animal characteristics in easy terms. The chameleon, for instance, catches insects with his sticky tongue. Children operate a joystick to control a smaller, robotic chameleon's head, pushing a button to get the sticky tongue to hit insect targets.
Children can hang from a bar in a small "bat cave" while their hang time is recorded electronically.
Visitors also can look through a screen to "see" the room the way a fly, with his hundreds of eyelets, sees it.
For those who have wondered why a fly is so difficult to swat, that is explained by testing human reactions. The fly's reaction time is about 12 times faster than a human's (about one-50th of a second compared to one-fourth of a second for humans), the exhibit explains. With all those eyelets, a fly can detect the tiniest motion and dart away. A blinking light game challenges visitors to "swat" a fly and test their reactions. (Hint: Not surprisingly, the fly always wins).

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