"There's a poetry in the materials we use to construct our world of artifacts; it speaks of our long history as a technological species."
At this point in the novel, manipulative Charles Boardman is trying to persuade the novel's protagonist, Dick Muller, to take on a risky first-contact assignment. He shows him a video of the aliens themselves.
Although he obviously gives no details on how such a device would function, the strategy is obviously workable, providing an alternative to human exploration that could actually work. For a look at a strikingly similar device, see the Omnidirectional EyeBall Surveillance Sensor. You also might be interested in the throwbot, a similar idea in a more 'terrestrial' format.
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