A tiny, talking, filmmaking robot with a cardboard shell. A six-legged robot that mirrors the movement of your face. A drone that 3D prints concrete.

They're all robots that you can poke, pet and even program at the Robot Petting Zoo at South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, from March 15-17.

The menagerie of about 20 robots from 10 different organizations was brought in by the Field Innovation Team, a non-profit group based in Heber City, Utah. The group brings together volunteer partners from a variety of fields to apply innovations such as robotics to disaster relief efforts, says Rebeka Ryvola, the team's creative director, who is originally from Vancouver, B.C.

Desiree Matel-Anderson

Desiree Matel-Anderson, chief wrangler for the Field Innovation Team, holds up one of the robots from the Robot Petting Zoo that runs March 15-17 at South by Southwest Interactive Festival. (Emily Chung/CBC)

The robots on display include some that have been used in disasters such as Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident in 2011 and last year's deadly mudslides in Oso, Washington, says Desiree Matel-Anderson, who describes herself as the organization's "chief wrangler." Others haven't yet been deployed in the field, but have the potential to be useful in future disasters.

Unfortunately, the drones on display are not allowed to fly at the hotel venue where the petting zoo takes place - but you can still pet them. Meanwhile, other robots are free to crawl, roll and scoot about in their "cages" and visitors have a chance to try operating some of them.

"We want them to think about robots as having great potential to do amazing things in the humanitarian disaster space. Robots are already doing so much there," Ryvola said. "We think that going forward this is where we're going to be seeing great leaps and bounds in how quickly we're able to respond, the amount of people who are able to help and the amount of good we're able to do."

 Watch the video to meet Matel-Anderson and some of the robots.

The robots featured in the video, in order, are:
  • McCaffrey, a camera-equipped, remote controlled robot designed to search dangerous sites like collapsed buildings. It can survive falls of up to three storeys and operate both right-side-up and upside-down.
  • The iRobot SUGV, similar to robots used at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, which has an arm that can be operated remotely to manipulate debris and equipment such as sensors.
  • Blabdroid, a tiny "filmmaking robot" with housing made of cardboard. It can talk to interview subjects and can shoot video with its camera.
  • Ozobots, little round toy robots that can be programmed to move and dance using different colour codes.
  • The Double telepresence robot, designed to represent someone who can't be physically present. The operator can move the robot by remote control and interact with other people via teleconferencing. Their face is projected on the robot's screen.
  • Dar-1, a social robot with six legs that is designed to track your face and imitate your movements.