Sarah Petkus On Building A Cartoon To Go To Mars

Sarah Petkus is a robot mom (which means she’s the mother to a robot, not that Sarah herself is a robot, at least as far as we’re aware), whose child, Noodle Feet, is a character in Sarah’s graphic novel Gravity Road. Unlike every other robot on the planet, Noodle Feet is a content-based robot. Instead of robotic arms welding car panels together or 3D printers squiring out goo, Noodle Feet isn’t a robot built for a specific function. Noodle Feet’s design is derived from his personality in his graphic novel. In the graphic novel, Noodle Feet tastes with his feet, clambers over rocks, and explores his surroundings. That’s what the real-life version of Noodle Feet must do, and that means building the hardware to do just that.

Sarah has been working on Noodle Feet for about two years now, and last year she presented a talk about tasting feet and salivating toes. It’s odd, yes, but it is a fantastic exploration of what can be done with robotics.

This year, Sarah had the opportunity to be an artist in residence at ESA, where Noodle Feet could at least test out his dream of living on Mars. There, Noodle Feet played around in the ESA’s Mars yard, where he made friends with a copy of the ExoMars rover.

Since we last checked out the design of Noodle Feet, Sarah has put a lot of work into what her progeny actually does. Last year, Noodle Feet came out with fancy, grippy, retractable toes designed to clamber over rocks and extraterrestrial environments. In the year since Noodle Feet has gotten a few upgrades.

The first such upgrade is a giving module. Noodle Feet, for reasons unexplained in Sarah’s talk, like to hand out beans. The giving module is a cybernetic addition to Noodle Feet’s exoskeleton meant to dispense small trinkets in his wake. This module is designed somewhat like an Archimedes screw that scoops beans up and poops them out as Noodle Feet travels along the terrain.

Noodle Feet’s sense of taste.

Another Noodle module that has seen an upgrade from last year is the salivation module. Yes, Noodle Feet salivates and leaves a wake of sticky goo behind him. Salivating implies tasting, and this year Sarah has figured out a way to give Noodle another sense. Sarah took a spool of litmus paper and calibrated a color sensor to detect acidity. It’s a reasonable stand-in for a sense of sourness, but it is a sense of sourness.

Noodle is still growing, and Sarah is exploring what it means for a robot to go through puberty. There’s still a lot of parts to build for Noodle, and you can check out the entire build log over on Sarah’s development blog

24 thoughts on “Sarah Petkus On Building A Cartoon To Go To Mars

  1. Yes, it seems weird up front, but check out some of her vlogs. Noodle Feet is actually a pretty interesting ‘bot. And kind of endearingly adorable, what with the graphic novel integration and such.

      1. Art is the attempt at expressing the private language of experience that exists in our heads, by taking objects and patterns that elicit the sensations, associations, abstractions etc. and projecting this internal meaning onto the object, making it a sort of symbol or a fetish for yourself, the artist, and then showing them to other people in the hope or assumption that it would elicit the same thing in their minds.”Can you see what I see?”

        In that sense, all art is like a synesthetic person showing you a rock and saying “See that, that’s what the smell of meringue pie looks like” – you either see it or you don’t see it, or you see something vaguely like it, or something completely different – like the question, how do we know we see the same thing when we see the color red, or whether we merely call the different experiences “red” because we don’t have any other point of view than our own.

        Art communicates by how closely our internal representations of the experiences of reality meet. Beyond that, it makes absolutely no sense, like a bad joke made by a schitzophrenic. Art is always to some extent private – ungettable by others. For example, suppose you’re a caveman painting pictures of your hand on the wall; fast forward 5,000 years and people will interpret your art as having some religious ritualistic significance because that’s all they can think of. It doesn’t occur to them that you were just painting hands on the wall. Why does Mona Lisa smile?

        So there’s really nothing to get in art. If there was, it wouldn’t be art. Complaining that other people don’t get art is like complaining that other people aren’t me.

  2. “Unlike every other robot on the planet, Noodle Feet is a content-based robot.”

    Are you really saying no one else has made a robot with the goal of giving it a personality rather than as a construction tool?

    1. no. I’m saying first and foremost the goal was to give the robot a personality of its own, not just as a gimmick to monetize it (like most other robots with “personalities”). Of course I’m not the only person to do this, but it is a lot less common :)

  3. Well, they say that art is created for art’s sake!

    It’s really weird, but really cool…I mean, how many other people have thought about similar problems? Slug-feet that can taste the ground under them?

    Sure, why not?

  4. I’m not an artsy type of person. I prefer to make functional/utilitarian things. But even if i dont understand the motivation behind something someone built, I can still appreciate the time, effort, and energy they spent on making it exist. More often than not, the only people that talk down about others creations, are ones who have little to none of their own.
    And even if you are somehow against the concept of art in its entirety…at the very least, this can be looked at as a learning tool. Its something obscure that people look at and go ‘oh thats interesting’ and once it has their attention, you just might learn something. Everything from computer vision to chemistry is going on in this little robot. There are dozens of different kinds of sciences and processes involved, everything from milling to 3d printing to programming to circuit board design, to gear trains, and more. Sarah learned how to do these things and helps teach how to do these things, in order to take a robot manifested in fiction, and bring it to life in the real world.
    Damn impressive if i do say so myself.

  5. if more people spend time creating the things they wish to see exist, the world would generally be a cooler place. 1) Don’t let not knowing how to do something stop you from doing it. 2) Don’t let money be your only motivation to produce content

    1. Dunno about that, because misanthropic cretins such as myself would create a world designed to be rid of humanity.

      Some art and some engineering are the only two beauties that have resulted from humanity, My planet would have no others (ok, would invite the wife-unit).

  6. I’m not really sure what any of that just was. But at least she actually built something.

    When I read the intro for this post, I had the impression this was a fictional robot that she created for the purposes of the comic. Which would REALLY be pushing it here. I’ll take a thousand Arduino blinkies over a writeup about a fictional robot.

    So I don’t get it, but at least there was some hardware to show. Which now that I think of it isn’t really that uncommon for these pages anyway….

  7. There are a bunch of comments on here that have some problem or other with this article (including me). There are a bunch of responses that say people like me aren’t appreciating art. I want to clarify my position here . Maybe you will still think I’m wrong but at least you will disagree with what I actually think.

    I like art. I realize that Noodle Feet is an art project. I think Noodle Feet is cool. I acknowledge that I do not have the skills to build one myself. And I would be fascinated to learn more about giving a robot a sense of taste. Conversely I think the sentence “Unlike every other robot on the planet, Noodle Feet is a content-based robot” is a load of horse shit. Noodle Feet is not the first robot based on a work of fiction or created for the sake of creation. Sarah Petkus to her credit does not appear to claim that.

    I also just want to clarify that I did not think she was actually trying to attract investors. I just think the phrase “content based robot” sounds like marketing jargon.

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