In a year of rapid developments in robotics, we look back at ten robots that made news for reasons good, bad and weird.
The term “robot” is a very broad designation these days. Depending on context, it can refer to everything from advanced A.I. to children’s toys. This year’s inaugural Boss Bots list combines genuine robotic breakthroughs from the world of engineering with friendly companion bots for the consumer market, plus some inspired goofiness from the P.T. Barnum end of the spectrum.
From the world of fighting robots, heavyweight division, we bring glad tidings of great joy from the MegaBot Mark II. You may recall that the marketing-savvy MegaBots Inc. made news earlier this summer when the design team issued a formal challenge to the makers of Japan’s resident giant fighting robot, Kuratas. Meanwhile, the MegaBots team has stayed busy lining up corporate sponsorships and trying out new weapons in a rather slick promotional Web series.
Back in August, we wrote about the Octobot, a 3D-printed engineering breakthrough that also represents a major step forward in the field of soft robotics. Developed by a team at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, the Octobot has no wires, circuits or electronic parts whatsoever. Instead, the squishy bot is powered by chemical reactions and a soft logic board: Liquid hydrogen peroxide is converted into gas to inflate the robot’s arms like balloons.
The dedicated roboticists over at Boston Dynamics are always good for a viral video or two each year and 2016 was no exception. In June, the company put out a new demo reel spotlighting the latest iteration of its canine bot SpotMini, frolicking about with papa dogbot Spot. Unlike most of BD’s other big bots, SpotMini is an all-electric machine with no hydraulic components. It’s nimble, too. The video shows the robot gently sorting dishes and recycling, just after it shimmies through a remarkably creepy dance routine.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Boston Dynamics’ lab, the company’s alpha robot Atlas kept on keeping on in 2016 with some impressive improvements. While on loan to the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) in Florida, Atlas was outfitted with a new navigation algorithm that enabled the 300-pound to nimbly tiptoe its way across a simulated field of rubble. The new capabilities could improve performance in future search-and-rescue scenarios. You may also want to check out Atlas’ new Swearing Mod (NSFW).
Back at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, researchers wandered into Frankenstein territory with a partially organic hybrid biobot powered by genetically altered rat heart cells. (Some sentences are just fun to type.) Making things even weirder, the tiny robotic stingray, about the size of a penny, can actually be controlled by light. Those modified heart cells twitch when exposed to specific wavelengths, so the bot can be “steered” by sequenced light pulses. One final twist: The stingray’s tiny skeleton is made of gold. Science!
Earlier this year, at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, a group of rascally engineers from Hanson Robotics debuted their latest lifelike humanoid robot, Sophia. The company’s mission? To build “affordable, highly intelligent robots that teach, serve, entertain and are capable of developing a deep relationship with people.” The Hanson engineers previously built a humanoid robot modeled after sci-fi godfather Philip K. Dick, but the new Sophia bot is designed to learn as it converses with people and ultimately become an “awakening machine.” If you’re keeping notes at home, Sophia’s face is based on Audrey Hepburn and company founder David Hanson’s wife. On a related note, say hello to the ScarJoBot.
A major celebrity at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, the Segway Robot is just that — a wheeled autonomous bot built on a Segway chassis. An ongoing collaboration among Segway, Intel and Chinese electronics company Xiaomi, it’s still in development, but designers hope it will eventually emerge as a consumer companion robot similar to the Japanese buddy bot Pepper. Segway Robot’s on-board cameras and optical sensors are used for both facial recognition and environment mapping, and it responds to voice commands in both English and Chinese. Oh, it also collapses down into a functional hoverboard.
Some of the most compelling robot news of 2016 dealt with potential future machines that are little more than bright ideas at this point. In December, the prestigious cross-disciplinary journal Interface Focus dedicated its entire issue to bio-inspired concepts for flying robots and drones. Among the 18 published papers are bots based on bumblebees, frigate birds and a study that proposes stealthy drones with synthetic owl feathers for near-silent flight. The winged drone pictured above, from EPFL’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, also uses synthetic feathers for precise aerial maneuvers. “Bio-inspired design and biomimetics is a very busy area right now,” said issue editor David Lentink, who spent more than a year compiling the research.
It seems like the premise for a B-movie horror script but, as with so many things in life these days, it’s a collaboration between Stanford and MIT. In October, engineers debuted a new variety of creepy-crawly bots called Rovables at the ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium (UIST) in Tokyo. Equipped with tiny magnetic wheels, the one-inch robots cling to your clothes by pinching the fabric beneath them and wandering around your body as you go about your day. The bots can be programmed to vibrate when you get an email or need a calendar reminder, or they can converge to form a wearable display screen. Developers hope to get Rovables down to fingernail size, eventually. So that’s nice.
When future historians catalog the year of 2016, they will likely characterize it as a dark time for many reasons, most of which are cataloged in this insanely great but NSFW viral video. Among the year’s official bummers: Robots can officially beat us now in foosball. It seems a bunch of Swiss grad students at EPFL, in their spare time, have built a foosball-playing robot out of high-speed cameras and surplus manufacturing motors. They’ve been working on it for years, evidently, and have improved it to the point where it can defeat most human challengers most of the time. Oh, we have some troubling news about ping pong, too.