Robot Night At The Museum

After the humans have left, the 'bots come out

A robot views art
A robot views artAlexey Moskvin

In the darkness of the deserted museum, something inhuman stirred. A pair of headlights swept around a corner, illuminating a statue—as a camera streamed the sight to viewers around the world. The nocturnal intruder was part of “After Dark,” an event series in which robots roam a public space when the crowds have gone home.

During the first “After Dark” event, in August 2014, about 500 people got a chance to explore London’s Tate Britain via one of four robots. Tate had selected “After Dark” and its creators, designers Ross Cairns and Tommaso Lanza, for its annual IK Prize, which awards technology projects that bring art to a larger audience. While one of the 500 volunteers used online controls to steer the robot, everyone else could watch a live feed as art experts provided commentary.

Viewing art after hours is familiar to Cairns and Lanza, who have produced interactive exhibits in several museums and galleries. “Working in these amazing spaces, we often walked around the galleries at night by ourselves—public spaces where we were really not supposed to be,” says Cairns. “We wanted to re-create that experience.”

The robots' next deployment is top secret—for now. Keep an eye on the project's Twitter handle, @afterdarkrobots, or sign up for its mailing list.

100,000: Number of people who watched the live stream of "After Dark"

Steer Clear of the Art

Cairns and Lanza built the bots from laser-cut and machined parts, along with DIY electronics. To avoid knocking over priceless works of art, the robots use sonar, which detects sound waves as they bounce off obstacles. If an object blocks a robot’s path, it won’t proceed forward, even when its driver orders it to. The designers also built in a fail-safe: If one of the sensors stops working, a switch will cut off power to the bot.

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of Popular Science.