In the future we will live together with all kinds of drones, robots, autonomous cars and other electronic entities. But how long until this science fiction is truly part of our daily lives? From which tedious or dangerous tasks will the robots liberate us first? To answer these questions, we review the latest creations from the leading laboratories and universities worldwide. This is what the future looks like… for now.
Despite the huge advances in autonomy and capabilities in recent years, much remains before we will be seeing a real Terminator or C3PO walking our streets. Robots designed to move like us or use our tools are much more complicated than those created for specific tasks, such as robots on an assembly line. To stimulate the development of these humanoids, the agency in charge of technological development for US military use (DARPA) has created an annual competition endowed with $3.5 million in prizes.
The competition was launched after the disaster at the nuclear plant in Fukushima (Japan) demonstrated the need to develop robots that can be deployed in disaster areas, and is organized as a timed race in which robots must pass a series of tests, such as driving a vehicle designed for humans, walking in areas strewn with rubble, climbing stairs, opening doors and using common tools such as a drill.
The winner this year was DRC-HUBO, designed by the team from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). This robot stood out over its competitors by being relatively lightweight, having great manual dexterity and being able to kneel while moving quickly. Its victory confirmed South Korea as an international power in robotics. Although watching these human-looking machines climbing stairs might suggest that a robotic apocalypse is imminent, for now we can breathe easy, as shown in this video compilation of robots falling over during the latest edition of the competition.
2. All-terrain Quadrupeds
Nature is a great source of inspiration for robotics. Evolution has done a wonderful job of refining efficient ways of moving, and they inspire engineers to replicate them as needed. Recently, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) presented an amazing video in which a robot they call “the cheetah” was able to run and jump over obstacles up to 30 centimeters high. The cheetah has already been in development for some years, but it is increasingly refining its skills. When engineers felt they had developed its speed and stability to a satisfactory point, they decided to ‘teach it’ to jump.
The robotic cheetah created at MIT. Credit: MIT, Haewon Park, Patrick Wensing, and Sangbae Kim.
Another version of quadruped is this pack mule, designed by Boston Dynamics for DARPA. The mule is designed to move across difficult terrain carrying a load of up to 180 kilos and travelling up to 30 kilometers without refueling. In recent versions the ability to follow a leader has been added. It is easy to imagine armies of the future venturing into enemy territory followed by a few of these mules carrying the heavy equipment, or why not also think about going camping without having to carry a backpack?
3. Fish (and other Soft Things)
Soft robotics is a relatively new discipline that is also inspired by biological designs, in this case mimicking soft tissue to carry out more delicate tasks or to access inaccessible areas where rigid robots cannot go. Soft robotics is based on the use of new flexible materials and compressed air or other techniques to make the soft bodies of the robots flex and stretch to perform various tasks such as crawling through cracks in disaster areas or grasping objects with changing properties.
These robots have the advantage of being inexpensive and can be deployed in large quantities to perform specific missions. One of the best examples are these robotic fish developed by the University of Essex in the UK, or these from MIT. Other applications are the tentacles or soft grippers for grasping irregular objects that need an adaptable tip for the robot to be able to interact with them.
4. Insects, Worms and Flies
If there is something that has inspired robot builders since the beginning of robotics, it is insects. However, in recent times, due to miniaturization and the development of new materials, they not only resemble insects but they also have the same size. For example, this fly/dragonfly or this cockroach developed by the micro-robotics laboratory at Harvard University.
Another example is this species of worm, called OmniTread, developed at the University of Michigan. This robot is designed to move through extremely difficult terrain, such as the rubble of ruined buildings. It can also move on sand, gravel or through dense vegetation.
5. Space Explorers
Space is the final frontier for both humans and robots. In fact, they have already provided many advantages to us as the robotic exploration of the solar system has been underway for several years running. One need only remember that there are currently some robots exploring the surface of Mars. For some time now, NASA has proposed the concept of using robots in their missions, either alone or to support the human teams. Back in March 2012, a “Robonaut” called R2 was sent to the International Space Station and was subjected to various tests.
Now the agency is developing the R5, nicknamed “Valkyrie,” a more capable robot designed to operate on the ground, probably on planet Mars. R5 has 44 articulations containing a multitude of cameras in the head and the joints, along with sonar to detect obstacles.
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