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Robot developers learn perils of new media

Somewhere in the blogosphere the biomass-fueled robot being developed for the military turned into a battlefield corpse-eater. Their lesson was that information, once released, can't be controlled.

July 30, 2009|Gus G. Sentementes | Sentementes writes for the Baltimore Sun.

Robotics expert Robert Finkelstein has had a company in the field for nearly a quarter of a century without controversy. He never paid attention to blogs, didn't have a company website until last year and never felt the need to issue news releases about his work.

That is, until blogs and news sites feasted on his EATR project.

EATR, for Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot, is a robotic ground vehicle that Finkelstein's small company is designing with U.S. Defense Department funding; it can sustain itself on long missions by foraging for twigs, leaves and other kinds of vegetation.

But wild speculation on the Internet this month was that Finkelstein's Robotic Technology Inc. and a partner were building flesh-eating robots for the Pentagon.

Scores of blogs and news sites, including FoxNews.com, ran with the unfounded report. The online furor caught the companies off guard and turned into a major distraction.

The companies' experience illustrates the challenges businesses and public relations agencies now navigate.

"The media environment is constantly changing, and I think that's the biggest obstacle" companies face right now, said Todd Scott, spokesman for Himmelrich PR, a public relations company in Baltimore. "You used to know what the rules were, and now the rules change every day."

Robotic Technology in Potomac, Md., and its partner, engine developer Cyclone Power Technologies Inc. in Pompano Beach, Fla., learned a few lessons.

"I was shocked," Finkelstein said. "For the future, I learned I shouldn't be so cavalier about information that goes out into the world."

Many companies are monitoring what people write online about their brands and try to nip bad publicity in the bud. But it's hard to tell where a wave of negative publicity will originate.

Facebook, for instance, faced a torrent of criticism this year when a consumer blog pointed out a change in its terms of service that could affect users' privacy.

And United Airlines was mocked by a country music singer in a YouTube video, now watched more than 3.8 million times, for destroying his guitar during baggage handling in March.

Robotic Technology and Cyclone Power, companies more accustomed to geeky coverage in science publications, found that their misinterpreted project received wacky, A-list attention on the Internet.

PerezHilton.com, a popular gossip site, featured EATR as a machine that ate "dead bodies" in a blog post, with a photo of Robocop.

Gizmodo, one of the most popular tech blogs, proclaimed the U.S. government was funding development of a flesh-eating robot.

The speculation that launched EATR into the popular consciousness as a carnivore can be traced to a straightforward news release from Cyclone on July 7. The word "biomass" in the release was misinterpreted to mean EATR could feed on corpses on a battlefield.

It reached a fever pitch in mid-July, when FoxNews, Fast Company and CNET published online reports repeating the speculation, without first checking with Robotic Technologies or Cyclone.

The companies' websites were swamped. The project's main sponsor, the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, wanted the public record corrected.

Cyclone issued a second news release July 16, calling EATR a "vegetarian" -- leading to even more news coverage. A story about EATR being a "vegetarian" ran in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

Chris Nelson, the head of investor relations for Cyclone who helped craft the first news release, said the experience left him believing that trying to control news on the Internet is "like trying to control the wind."

"You can only put out what you believe to be the most accurate information and hope it's received the way you want it to be," he said. "But you can't control it."

"I think companies that go through the same cycle of absurdity . . . need to understand that in the end, people are talking about you. People are noticing what you're doing. And that's a good thing."

So did the company ever consider powering a robot using corpses? Never, Cyclone Chief Executive Harry Schoell said.

"It's not even efficient," he said, describing the human body as essentially a sack of water. "It's not practical. It's ridiculous."

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