At Museum, ‘RoboSue’ Roars to Life

The Field Museum of Natural History will open an exhibit this week of a reincarnated Sue — their iconic Tyrannosaurus rex — as a lifelike animatronic creature that turns its head to track visitors’ movements and lets out a loud roar.

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The exhibit, which opens Wednesday and runs through Sept. 6, marks the tenth anniversary of Sue’s debut in the museum’s atrium — the largest and most complete T. rex fossil yet discovered.  A Tokyo-based animatronics company Kokoro and Texas-based robotics company KumoTek have created the imposing — and somewhat unsettling — replica, complete with a sponge-like silicone skin.

Hilary Sanders, the museum’s project manager for exhibitions, said the robotic dinosaur, dubbed RoboSue, “made my skin crawl” when she first encountered it, and was eager to see how children — only those 4 and older will be admitted — would react. “She’s got enormous white teeth, she’s got these red bloodshot eyes and she’s moving around in a way that I never expected her to move,” Ms. Sanders said.

The exhibit, which is displayed in a gallery near the original 13-foot-tall Sue, also features an animatronic Triceratops and the dreaded Velociraptors made famous by the film “Jurassic Park.”

“When there’s nobody around, the robots are doing autonomous, or what appear to be random, behaviors,” said KumoTek founder Matthew Fisher.  “But once the target or the human comes into play, then the robot immediately engages that person and will track them and interact with them. The magic of it is actually taking as much information as we can through the paleontologists’ perspective and programming that digitally into the dinosaurs’ behaviors.”

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Establishing how dinosaurs would move and react to humans was tricky, said Pete Makovicky, the curator for the Sue exhibit.

“It’s really hard to decipher behavior from the fossil record because behavior doesn’t usually leave a trace,” he said.  “So when it comes to the individual actions of the dinosaurs in the exhibit, a lot more of that is based on the general study of how animals react — what is plausible given what we know about the anatomy and frame of a T. rex.” RoboSue is scaled to three quarters the size of an adult T. Rex, which in Sue’s case is 40.5 feet long and 13 feet tall at the hip.

Gabe Lyon, whose non-profit foundation teaches paleontology to Chicago Public School students, said that although animatronic models can appeal to children’s imaginations, their scientific accuracy is doubtful. “They’re not going to tell us anything real about how dinosaurs behaved, any more than ‘Jurassic Park’ is going to tell us that dinosaurs hunted in packs.”

Monica Post, the director of MPR Museum Consulting, said the “wow” factor of RoboSue may help to draw more people into the learning experience that museums offer. “Today, we expect so much more — we are the X-box generation.”  But, she said, “We also still want to see the real thing in the form of artifacts like the real Sue.”

Sue is a 67-million year-old fossil discovered in 1990 by paleontologist Sue Hendrickson near Faith, South Dakota. It was purchased at a Sotheby’s auction in 1997 for $8.4 million.  It took 30,000 hours to prepare the more than 250 bones and teeth in her skeleton.

The museum’s investment in Sue has yielded big returns. Twelve million people have come to see Sue in Chicago, and another 6.5 million around the world have viewed one of the two Sue castings the museum owns and lends out to other venues. Museum officials said more than $9 million in Sue merchandise has been sold from the museum store since 2000.

John McCarter, president of the Field Museum, said he hopes the new exhibit will bring in more revenue and attract new visitors. He said the research into Sue’s musculature and the behavior patterns of present-day reptiles makes RoboSue makes more than just a flashy spectacle.

“This exhibit is all science. It gets into biomechanics, how dinosaurs moved, the maternal protection of nests, and conflict between dinosaurs.”

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One Response to “At Museum, ‘RoboSue’ Roars to Life”

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