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Commissioned for the exhibition ‘Water the Delicate Thread of Life’
Curated by Marion Dixon 
Hosted by Standard Bank Gallery
Glass (2 X 6mm adjoining panels of safety glass– each 2455mm X 1109mm)
Letters of the word ‘WATER’, cut out of polystirene 
One solar light source, used to charge all the solar panels as mounted on the robots (not in view)
Electronic parts put together in eleven small robots

Walking on Water

  • here is no monopoly on walking on water. Water spiders do it all the time and the little Jesus Christ lizard (Basiliscus basiliscus) is an expert at it. But somehow we, the people of the world, are hopeless at it and by all acounts only one of us ever really managed the trick.


    Yes, the world is a great place, there are things that walk on water.

    Because of this Standard Bank ‘water’ exhibition, I recently Googled the phrase ‘walking on water’ and I came acoss a robot, designed so light, it actually walks on water. Stunning! There it was, an image of a spindley, spidery, man-made thing, moving about on water and weighing less than water normally can carry.


    By ‘ullage’ we understand the amount by which a bottle or glass is empty – such a peculiar word ‘ullage’, originally derived from the Latin oculus ‘eye’ (with reference to a container's bunghole). The book of Genesis says: “Be fruitful and fill the earth.” I always wondered what is meant by this sense of ‘fullness’. When do we exhaust the world’s ullage? When do we exhuast the ‘bunghole’? In contrast to the filling of the ullage of a bottle or cup with that last bit of useful liquid that causes it to run over, people filling the planet’s ullage is making it dry, lifeless, waterless – an eye that can’t cry.


    We are hell-bent on a grandiose lifestyle and need for progress. Our lifestyle is rather dirty, to say the least and its polluting effect is the theme of recent spate of books. It dawned on me , and on so many researchers, that there might soon be a time, when, if we  continue to live the way we do, we would run out of natural resources, water being the most important. We would either have used up all available resources or have made the soil and water so sullied that it is no longer of use. Yes, these books sound the same kind of refrain: “What happens when that happens?”


    We’ve been around for the latter part of about 3 million years of homanid evolution and it appears we are only a few hundred years away from extinction.


    The two things that served us best are arguably literacy and technology. Some philosopher proposed that man is the product of the tool – suggesting that we only truly evolved into what we are because we developed a technology that defines our particular way of life as distincly different from that of all other animals. Marshall McLuhan used this ‘product of the tool’ idiom to play with the idea that we created the ‘word’, and that therefter the ‘word’ created us. We are what we are because we have clever technological inventions aided by a superior communication through the ‘word’ as personified by speech, text, books, and the thing known as ‘the media’.


    My work WALKING ON WATER plays with technology as it interacts with the ‘word’. When we are gone, all that will be left will be endless libraries of books, mountains of digital information and stockpiles of machines, quite incredibly designed, but defunct. If only the necessary source of energy that drove them could somehow be re-generated and if only there would be someone around to drive them they might yet again live up to their promise.


     For WALKING ON WATER I write the word ‘water’ on the ground, under glass, as a pathetic suggestion of what will remain when people are gone, and when clean water is gone. The written word ‘water’ is all that survived.


    Onto the word water I placed eleven small robots to show that our technology, or at least some harebrained remnants of it, will outlive us. The robots are driven by sun energy.


    My younger son Willem finished school in 2010 and I got him to spend his holiday designing a clever system of getting spindly little robots to walk around on the word ‘water’. He has been interested in robotics all of his high-school life and he devised the circuitry, mechanics and constuction of these little critters. They must walk on ‘water’ for as long as they can, forever if possible – after all, they are driven by solar energy. I guess the fact that they will flounder and will have to be rebooted from time to time is indicative of the pathos of it all. We are all gone and all that is left are bits of crazy wire that somehow walk on water.


    The little waterbots walk around aimlessly on the letters of the word ‘water’ and when one of them comes to the edge of the field, it reverses itself and follows a new course. Ironically, Willem junior’s design of the little waterbots became so exciting that many have expressed the wish that it would be great if the school syllabus could include a section on robotics. My elder son Martin and his engineer friend Carl at first watched from a distance, but after a while also got involved and soon a backyard waterbot industry began to flourish. The circuitry is quite complex and many of the electronic parts were ordered from overseas. I include some of Willem junior’s notes.

  • Walking on Water Willem Boshoff (jr.) My original project brief was to create a group of small robots, which possessed many of the qualities normally attached to insects or arachnids found in nature: Spiny, spindly, delicate yet agile all at the same time. They had to be small enough to fit onto a raised letter with very limited moving parameters and have the ability to stay on top of the letter without falling off while remaining as mobile as possible. The solution was to create eleven small solar powered walking robots to walk around on top of the word “water”, three robots for the letter W and then two per every other letter. The principles of operation behind the robots are not electronically complex at all in order to keep them simple and robust. No micro-processors were used in their construction. Instead, a series of “clock” circuits was implemented. Each “clock” contains two nodes which oscillate an electric signal between them which lasts for a certain amount of time and which takes a certain amount of time to get from one node to the other. These two “clocks” always oscillate in synchronicity with one another, the “master clock” setting the speed of the oscillations and the “slave clock” mimicking the master clock at a small time delay. When these “clock” circuits are connected to servo motors with leg assembly’s a walking gait can be observed. In the case of these robots the master clock is responsible for up and down motion of the two front legs, while the slave clock is responsible for the left and right oscillations of the rear legs which provide the robot with forward motion. A circuit was added in between the two clock circuits which when activated, reversed or swapped the signals coming from the front clock circuit to the rear thus causing the walking gait to reverse. This, when coupled with a frontal tactile “feeler” type sensor gives the little robots basic obstacle avoidance capabilities. These robots derive their power from a single solar cell mounted towards the rear of the robot, which when used in conjunction with a rechargeable cell much like one found in a mobile phone form the basis of their means to power themselves.

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