The crow-bot

By Michelle Chung ’20

Tags features

In an age where technology is booming and always seems to be expanding or pushing its boundaries, it’s fascinating to see new devices constantly released one after the other. Even so, while it’s not unusual to see similar gadgets with similar functions (like the various types of smart phones or laptops), it’s quite rare to find something used for a unique purpose. Senior Jessica Zhu ’17 has used her innovation to take technology in a special direction: by building a robot shaped and programmed to behave like a crow.

Zhu began the on-campus project last summer with a proposal from her advisor and Winslow Chair of Modern Science and Professor of Physics Brian Collet. She was originally unsure of whether or not to take on the project, especially since it was so different from the typical major’s conventional physics research, but was ultimately thrilled with the idea of challenging herself. She returned from the summer deciding to officially make the project her thesis.

The robot, or crow-bot (nicknamed after crow robot), is technically a robot, but also a fake bird meant to fool real crows. Zhu began the project from scratch by herself and, as a result, did not have a strong idea of how to exactly build her robot. “In the very beginning I didn’t know what to do, or which direction to go. I was very panicky because I didn’t know if I was on the right track or just wasting my time. I also had to figure out how to make the robot look like a crow, which is totally beyond the scope of physics,” Zhu commented. 

She started by gathering information and answers from people who had previously built robots as well. “Gradually, it took me a while to know which direction I should go. But of course, throughout the semester there were always technical questions [that] came up, like how big the crow body should be, what was the best way to drive the head or neck, etc. For these questions, I just had to come up with multiple ideas and test them to find out which could be the best solution.”

Currently, the individual parts of the robot are finished and functional. Not only does the crow-bot look like a crow, it also has a head that can rotate and nod by use of a remote control, and will also be put on a tank chassis so it can move on the grass. Upon completion, it will be sent to Biology Professor Andrea Townsend who will cover it in skin and feathers. Consequently, Professor Townsend will use the crow-bot and control it to act in specific ways in front of real crows as a part of her research to study crow’s social behaviors.

As she reaches the final stages of her thesis, Zhu attributes much of her success to technicians Walt and Steve at the Science Center machine shop, who had taught her how to manufacture parts on the machine. She has also spent a great amount of time hearing the mission of Assistant Professor of Biology Professor Townsend’s research group. Zhu hopes her crow-bot invention will contribute to the group’s studies.

In the process of building the crow-bot, Zhu also came to many lessons and made many realizations. “From the experience, I learnt that research and independent study are so different than a typical course. There is no weekly deadline for homework, and very often some random things would pop up to slow your progress. Don’t get frustrated by it,” Zhu advises, “because it happens ALL the time. You need patience to tackle them down.”

All Features