Redefining Robots

At his laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, researcher Mark Tilden creates machines that march to the beat of a different drummer

Mark Tilden's workshop is like nothing else at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, perched high up on a mesa northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Writer Paul Trachtman crossed the threshold of Tilden's lab, in search of the robots that may well inhabit our future — mechanical devices that someday may be colonizing Mars or the Moon.

Tilden calls himself a "robobiologist" — and watching the ingenuity, independence and true grit with which his critters get around in the world, it's easy to see why he calls them "living machines." The first thing Tilden wants you to know is that his robots have nothing to do with computers. They are purely analog devices, built from a handful of nuts-and-bolts components you could buy at RadioShack — resistors, capacitors, transistors — but wired together in complex patterns that make them remarkable.

The common parts, low-tech look and seeming simplicity of Tilden's little machines are deceptive, however. Tilden is building robots (christened with names such as Unibug, Snakebot and Spyder) that can walk, crawl or tumble around in complex environments, solve problems and survive any number of conditions that their designer never taught them about.