Who says you have to spend
thousands of dollars to get a cool
robot? The world’s toy stores brim
with cheap-ass, rough-and-ready
robotic platforms just begging to
NATALIE JEREMIJENKO, A YALE ENGINEERING
professor, invented Feral Robot Dogs as a pedagogical exercise. Engineering profs would love to get
their kids to build sophisticated bots like the Sony
Aibo, but they’re pricey as hell, and Sony has a history of threatening legal action against people who
publish how-tos and code for hacking your Aibo.
Sony’s Aibos are expensive toys, controlled
from afar by the company’s Attack Lawyers.
Jeremijenko’s dogs are cheap, out-of-control, and
anything but toys.
Jeremijenko gives her students a selection of $20
toy dogs, the kind of thing that barks the national
anthem or whizzes in circles, and asks her kids to
take them to bits and divine what they can about the
production design that went into the toys, to learn
what they can about how mass-produced products
Now the fun begins. First, the robots are modded
with new drivetrains and fat wheels for rugged off-roading. Next, the students select sensors for their
dogs: the sensor of choice is a Volatile Organic
Compound (VOC) sniffer that can be had for a few
dollars. VOCs are highly toxic chemicals released in
urban environments by dry cleaners, power plants,
and other polluters. The VOC sensors are the “noses”
for the students’ dogs, and they’re connected to
“brains” — low-cost programmable interrupt
controllers that are configured to follow concentration gradients from the sensors, steering the dogs
toward ever-higher levels of pollutants.
Once a pack of dogs is ready, Jeremijenko and
students repair to a site suspected of containing
VOCs. One such site was the Bronx’s Starlight
Park, which had been converted to a park after
serving as a conEdison industrial site. The EPA
had done a soil survey and given the park a clean
22 Make: Volume 01
bill, but the Feral Dogs told another story: once
released onto the turf, the dogs quickly converged
on several toxic hotspots the Feds had missed.
Not surprising, really, since Feral Robot Dogs
sample every 6cm, while the EPA’s patented
Guy-with-a-Clipboard method is accurate to 4m.
What’s more, the Robot Dogs have the quality
Jeremijenko calls “legibility” — an unskilled person
can examine their behavior and read it, understanding that the spot where all the robots have
“The EPA gave the park
a clean bill, but the Feral
Dogs quickly converged
on several toxic hotspots
the Feds had missed.”
converged is the spot with the invisible, deadly
toxic waste. Compare this with the EPA’s method,
in which the numbers on the clipboard and their
interpretation are strictly the domain of experts,
and the rest of us can only rely on their assurances that all is well.
The Feral Robotics movement is thriving, and its
web hub (
with how-tos and information on sourcing parts,
contributed by Feral Roboticists around the world.
Photograph courtesy of Natalie Jeremijenko
Cory Doctorow (
craphound.com) is European Affairs Co-ordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (
co-editor at Boing Boing (boingboing. net), and an award-win-ning science fiction writer (
craphound.com/est). He lives in