Hunter Lloyd, who teaches robotics at Montana State University, knows how to turn heads at airports.
He wheels a robot named Looney in a baby stroller.
“That way,” he joked with Central Catholic High School students Monday, “I don’t have to worry about the baggage handlers — although the grandparents get a little freaked out when he waves to them.”
Looney is no ordinary humanoid robot. He can walk, talk, sing, hear, balance on one leg — and crack the occasional wisecrack, just like the guy who designed him. He won so many medals at the Robot Olympic Games — six most recently — that Lloyd has labeled him “the Michael Phelps of the Robot Olympics.”
Speaking to — and obviously amusing — the students of Central mathematics teacher Sunetta Ellwein on Monday morning, Lloyd traced the career path that led him into the classroom and MSU’s robotics lab.
Like very few other robotics professors, Lloyd began his career as a standup comedian, opening for Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Allen until he tired of the road and returned to New Mexico State University, where he tried to play football for a team that won only seven games in the seven years he was in school.
“I ended up getting cut by the worst Division I football team in America,” he said. “We once lost to the University of Oklahoma 73-3 and we threw a huge party because we scored.”
On Monday, Lloyd opened his shtick by demonstrating the simple robots he’s had his students construct.
One car-like unit traced the path on a map from Lloyd’s home to his office. But that robot can only look down, not out, and when Lloyd placed some model cars and tiny pedestrians along the route, the robot ran them over.
Students solved that problem by designing a spider-like robot that literally rose to the occasion. When it happened upon the traffic, the spider legs expanded so that the robot could go over the hindrance.
Lloyd elicited their loudest laughs when Looney was unveiled.
“What a nice-looking pod of humans,” the robot said, even switching to French for a moment. “That is a country in Europe known for fries and poodles. Get it? Ha, ha,” Looney said.
Looney called himself “a social butterfly” because he has more than 800 Facebook followers (www.facebook.com/looneytherobot) and his own YouTube page. In one video, Looney is struck by a car, “but it’s a Prius, so it does no damage,” Lloyd said.
His eyes can function as a TV remote, Lloyd said, and they’re programmed to guide the television to Lloyd’s favorite channel, ESPN.
Looney and his ilk are “one year away from being sold in stores,” Lloyd said, and he is one of the software developers working to bring Looney and his successors to market.
“My job is to think of every application you would ever want,” he said.
An example: For folks who find it hard to climb out of bed in the morning, Looney will go hide at the press of the snooze button. That requires getting out of bed to find the skulking robot before the alarm once again goes off.
At one point, Looney burst into a comical dance number, an homage to Judson Laipply’s “The Evolution of Dance,” one of the all-time most viewed on YouTube. Looney shook his robotic booty to everything from “Kung Fu Fighting” to “Gangnam Style.”
While Lloyd said he’s not an MSU recruiter, he did point out that while Montana firms hired more than 400 computer science graduates in 2012, Montana colleges and universities conferred degrees on only 44 computer science majors.
At least one student said he’d consider embarking on that course of study.
“It was very interesting. It’s made me think about a career in engineering,” said Cole Howard, a senior at Central. “This has definitely made me more interested in robotics.”