Robots — machines that can perform complex tasks automatically — have fascinated humans ever since they first conceived them. Since robots were imagined long before they were created, many of the best-known robots today are still found in the genre of science fiction, such as the positronic robots described in the works of famed author Isaac Asimov and the “droids” portrayed in the Star Wars films of George Lucas. However, while robots may have started as purely fictional creations, the days when robots existed only in people’s imaginations are long behind us.
Nowadays, robots can be found in all types of industries and it seems that incredible advances in the field of robotics are being made all the time. From the use of robots in the entertainment and toy industries to military and medical applications, these metal-clad automatons have permeated almost every aspect of our society and are apparently here to stay.
Although most of us do not have access to Jetsons-style robot maids yet, we can buy robot vacuum cleaners. On the other hand, judging by the robots that have already been developed by various researchers around the world, the day when a real “Rosie the Maid” will do your housework and babysit your children may not be as far off as you think. Or, if you have a less optimistic perspective on the future, perhaps the day when “Terminators” roam the Earth and hunt you down is not as far off as you think. In no particular order, here are 10 amazing real robots that have been created for research, entertainment, service, and military purposes.
Widely considered to be the world’s most advanced humanoid robot, ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility) “is the culmination of two decades of humanoid robotics research by Honda engineers,” stated the company on its website. As its name suggests, ASIMO has highly advanced movement capabilities that allow it to “run, walk on uneven slopes and surfaces, turn smoothly, climb stairs, and reach for and grasp objects.”
ASIMO’s artificial intelligence is just as impressive as its physical abilities. According to Honda, ASIMO understands voice commands, recognizes a certain number of human faces, maps its environment, and moves out of the way of moving obstacles. As seen in the video above, ASIMO has even challenged a famous world leader to a soccer match in what was undoubtedly some kind of test run for world domination. However, Honda claims that this robot’s ultimate purpose is to assist the elderly and to perform tasks that are dangerous to humans.
Aldebaran, a company owned by Japan’s SoftBank Group, “designs, manufactures and sells autonomous humanoid robots to contribute to human well-being,” according to its website. The robotics company has developed several different models of robots, including Pepper, a wheeled “emotional companion” that interacts with customers in SoftBank Mobile’s stores.
However, one of the coolest robots that Aldebaran has created is NAO, an approximately 2-foot tall humanoid bipedal robot that is intended to be a “true daily companion” for families. NAO can “teach multiplication tables to your children, wake you up in the morning, monitor your home during the day or teach you new things whenever you want.”
A similar, but larger version of NAO that stands at 4 feet 7 inches tall is also under development. Known as Romeo, the larger robot “is intended to deepen research on assistance for the elderly and those who have lost autonomy.”
One of the best known commercially released robots may be the series of AIBO robotic pets that were first sold by Sony in 1999, as noted on the company’s website. However, Sony also made several bipedal robots that were never sold to the public, starting with the 20-inch tall SDR-3X prototype in 2000. Sony’s research eventually culminated in the creation of QRIO (Quest for cuRIOsity), “the world’s first running humanoid robot” with an “internalized control system and power supply system,” as announced by the company in 2003.
As seen in the video above, QRIO was capable of several other impressive physical feats, including walking up stairs, jumping, standing up after falling down, and throwing a ball. Other videos demonstrated his abilities to recognize individuals by their faces and voices, as well carry on conversations. While Sony presumably had plans to eventually offer QRIO to consumers, development of the robot was halted in early 2006 as a cost-cutting measure, as reported by Macworld.
Made by Kawada Industries with support from Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) research facility, the HRP-4 is a robotics platform made under the auspices of the collaborative Humanoid Robotics Project (HRP). Besides featuring a cool design style that is based on robots that appear in Japanese anime, Kawada Industries’ HRP model robots are notable for being able to stand back up from a prone position on the floor, something that even Honda’s ASIMO cannot do. The HRP-4 stands almost 5 feet tall and has a greater degree of freedom in its arms than its predecessors.
“Incorporating to the external design the ‘slim athlete’ concept pursuing affinity with humans, HRP-4 has achieved the new, light-weighted and slim body while succeeding the concept of the conventional models HRP-2 or HRP-3 where the robots coexist with humans and assist or replace human operations or behavior,” reads the HRP-4’s description on Kawada Industries’ website.
While Kawada Industries’ various HRP models take design cues directly from Japanese anime, the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) used a similar robotics platform to create the HRP-4C, a robot with a human-looking head and hands. Nicknamed “Miim,” this robot is intended for use in the entertainment industry and is notable for its singing and dancing abilities. Besides presenting a clear threat to humans’ dominance of pop music, Miim can also be used as a human simulator for the evaluation of devices.
“Standing 158 cm [approximately 5 feet] tall and weighing 43 kg [94 pounds] (including the battery), with the joints and dimensions set to average values for young Japanese females, HRP-4C looks very human-like,” stated AIST researchers in a press release. “Its walking motion and general movements were developed by motion-capturing those of humans and then mimicking them by applying the walking control technology developed in the Humanoid Robotics Project (HRP.) Interactions with humans have been enabled through speech recognition and so forth.”
While many robot designs are modeled on humans, others are inspired by creatures in nature. Scientists at Harvard University have created the RoboBee, a tiny flying robot that is “inspired by the biology of a bee and the insect’s hive behavior.” Besides copying the bee’s physical design, the scientists are also trying to “mimic the sophisticated behavior of a real colony of insects” through the use of “sophisticated coordination algorithms, communications methods (i.e., the ability for individual machines to ‘talk’ to one another and the hive), and global-to-local programming tools to simulate the ways groups of real bees rely upon one another to scout, forage, and plan.”
Besides being a source of annoyance at future robo-picnics, these amazing micro-robots could be used for search and rescue operations, hazardous environment exploration, military surveillance, high resolution weather and climate mapping, and traffic monitoring, according to Harvard University’s RoboBee website. The scientists also noted that RoboBees could be used as artificial pollinators until a solution to the Colony Collapse Disorder plaguing biological bees is found.
WildCat is just one of several quadruped robots that Boston Dynamics has developed for military use with funding from the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). However, the WildCat is especially notable for being able to run at speeds up to 16 mph on flat terrain. The WildCat is based on the design of Boston Dynamic’s Cheetah robot, which set a new land speed record for legged robots at over 29 mph. However, unlike Cheetah, WildCat can operate without being tethered to a treadmill.
Many of Boston Dynamics’ four-legged robots are supposedly intended as mechanical packhorses for soldiers. However, since WildCat appears to have been engineered for speed, we can only imagine what the military wants with this technology. As reported by The New York Times, Boston Dynamics was acquired by Google in late 2013, so not only can WildCat outrun you, it also probably knows where you live. Sweet dreams!
While many of the robots on this list have designs that were inspired by human or animal forms, most of them would never be mistaken for anything but a robot (sorry, HRP-4C). However, a series of “actroid” robots manufactured by Japanese company Kokoro aims to blur the line between human and robot appearances. As stated on its website, Kokoro’s goal is to create “more like human” robots and the company already offers a line of realistic-looking humanoid robots for use at trade shows and other commercial events. As reported by Plastic Pals, the company has also collaborated with various research facilities to create Actroid-F, a robot intended for use as an observer in hospitals. Despite their unsettling human-like appearances, most of these actroids are not autonomous and must be remotely operated.
However, Kokoro’s actroid model, Actroid-SIT, merges the actroids’ lifelike appearance with a new level of autonomy, as reported by IEEE Spectrum. As seen in the video above, Actroid-SIT is able to independently communicate with people, although it sometimes comically misunderstands their questions. According to IEEE Spectrum, researchers from Japan’s Nara Institute of Science and Technology are studying how people interact with Actroid-SIT in order to make it seem more human. If you find these lifelike robots incredibly creepy, you can take comfort in the fact that none of these actroid models are able to walk yet, so it won’t be able to chase you — unless someone mounts it on a WildCat.
No, the iCub is not a cuddly Apple-branded robotic animal. Rather, it is an approximately 3-foot high humanoid robot developed by the Italian Institute of Technology as part of the European Union’s RobotCub Project, according to the official iCub website. Deliberately designed with child-like proportions in order to provide insights into human and robotic cognition, the iCub is intended as an open humanoid platform for researchers and has already been “adopted by more than 20 laboratories worldwide.”
As noted on its website, iCub “has 53 motors that move the head, arms & hands, waist, and legs. It can see and hear, it has the sense of proprioception (body configuration) and movement (using accelerometers and gyroscopes).” Researchers at the Italian Institute of Technology even outfitted the iCub with an artificial tactile skin system.
Even more impressive than its physical capabilities is the iCub’s ability to learn by interacting with its environment, including the ability to automatically recalibrate its eye-hand coordination, as seen in the video above. While we’re not sure if iCub will ever develop the capacity to love like the robot boy portrayed by Haley Joel Osment in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the iCub’s 250,000 Euros price tag will presumably discourage buyers from abandoning it in the woods once they get tired of it.
Arguably the world’s most famous real robot and undoubtedly its most expensive, NASA’s Curiosity Rover has been exploring Mars since it landed there in 2012. According to NASA, “Curiosity was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. In other words, its mission is to determine the planet’s ‘habitability.’”
This six-wheeled, 2,000-pound robot includes a number of highly advanced hardware components, including multiple cameras, spectrometers, radiation detectors, environmental sensors, atmospheric sensors, and a laser “eye” for vaporizing rocks. The “brains” of the rover is provided by a “radiation-hardened central processor,” while its “brawn” is derived from the electricity produced by its plutonium dioxide-powered generator that is expected to last 14 years. That’s approximately 14 years longer than your average smartphone battery charge.
The rover’s slow but steady trek across Mars’ surface can be seen at NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory website.
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