Humans have long dreamed of droids to do our dirty work, whether washing the dishes or fighting our wars. From the skies of Afghanistan to assembly lines in Detroit, those dreams are already a reality. Today sophisticated robots are being developed by universities, the private sector, and the military (or a combination of the three) that not so long ago would have been found only in the pages of comic book or on the movie screen. While we have a long way to go before robots become as practical, affordable, and ubiquitous as, say, automobiles or computers, it may be only a matter of time before they become the next big consumer electronic must-have.

Click here to see a roundup of the world's most advanced robots.


Boston Dynamics
Humans have long dreamed of droids to do our dirty work, whether washing the dishes or fighting our wars. From the skies of Afghanistan to assembly lines in Detroit, those dreams are already a reality. Today sophisticated robots are being developed by universities, the private sector, and the military (or a combination of the three) that not so long ago would have been found only in the pages of comic book or on the movie screen. While we have a long way to go before robots become as practical, affordable, and ubiquitous as, say, automobiles or computers, it may be only a matter of time before they become the next big consumer electronic must-have.

Click here to see a roundup of the world's most advanced robots.


Boston Dynamics

World's Most Advanced Robots

Hot Bots
Hot Bots
Humans have long dreamed of droids to do our dirty work, whether washing the dishes or fighting our wars. From the skies of Afghanistan to assembly lines in Detroit, those dreams are already a reality. Today sophisticated robots are being developed by universities, the private sector, and the military (or a combination of the three) that not so long ago would have been found only in the pages of comic book or on the movie screen. While we have a long way to go before robots become as practical, affordable, and ubiquitous as, say, automobiles or computers, it may be only a matter of time before they become the next big consumer electronic must-have.

Click here to see a roundup of the world's most advanced robots.


Boston Dynamics
Robot: BigDog
Robot: BigDog

Created by: Boston Dynamics
Size: 2 ft., 4 in. tall, weighing 165 lbs.
Purpose: Deployment as a mobility platform


A four-legged robot that resembles the Walkers from Star Wars, BigDog was designed to help Army grunts hump gear into roadless areas. Built around a combustion engine, the first prototypes of BigDog are in the testing phase and the next two years will involve working alongside defense contractors to come up with a deployable robot to work in a battlefield scenario. That will be followed by another 18 months of testing, according to Boston Dynamics founder and President Marc Raibert. BigDog can already make decisions about whether to go left or right around a tree, but carrying a gun and making a decision about shooting a gun are not really possibilities at this point. "To be honest, I get a little irritated with the gun question, because, to be honest, it's no different from putting a gun on a pickup truck," Raibert says. "People immediately jump to the point where they're imagining science fiction robots [that are] thinking, sentient being[s]. We're really building a mobility platform. It's like a truck that can go anywhere."


See BigDog in action.

Boston Dynamics
Robot: Bina
Robot: Bina

Created by: David Hanson of Hanson Robotics
Size: A life-size head and shoulders
Purpose:
To create robot avatars for actual humans


Commissioned through a Vermont nonprofit by a self-made millionaire named Martine Rothblatt, BINA 48 was designed to look and act like Rothblatt's spouse, Bina. (The couple were married before Rothblatt underwent a sex-change operation, and they remain together, according to The New York Times.) The idea, explains Bruce Duncan, the managing director of the Terasem Movement Foundation, the nonprofit, is to "explore the opportunity for people to achieve techno-immortality." To that end, Bina did more than 20 hours of videotaped interviews that were fed into the chips that power BINA 48's responses to questions. The result is a robot that can have a conversation at roughly the level of a three- or four-year-old. Duncan says Terasem is working toward a day when that database could be downloaded into human clones and robot avatars. To begin, the organization is inviting people to contribute details of their own lives to create avatars, in a project called Lifenaut. "The project of transferring the human mind to a computer is in the early phases," Duncan says, "but there are a number of scientists trying to find a way to do it."


See BINA 48 in action

Terasem Movement Foundation
Robot: Chembot
Robot: Chembot

Created by: iRobot and the University of Chicago
Size: Prototypes run from the size of a ping pong ball to basketball size
Purpose: Shape-shift and fit through small spaces


The makers of the Roomba and Scooba took on a grant from the U.S. Army and the Defense Dept. to create a shape-shifting robot. The result is the Chembot. It moves by inflating and deflating as well as by pushing certain sections out and jumping along. Still in the realm of technology research, iRobot will not produce these soon. It could be a long while before we see a shape-shifting robot squeeze through a crack in the door.


See Chembot in action

iRobot
Robot: Curiosity Rover
Robot: Curiosity Rover

Created by: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Size: Car size: 10 ft. long, 9 ft. wide, 7 ft. tall; weighing 2,000 lbs.
Purpose: To explore Mars for evidence of life and conditions favorable to life


Built with such goodies as a rock-vaporizing laser and cameras on every side, this new Mars rover is ready to go explore our neighbor planet. Curiosity will be able to grab rocks and bring them inside the rover for testing. So scientists believe the robot is NASA's best chance yet to discover organic materials on Mars. Also, for the first time, the new rover will send video back to Earth. Launch is scheduled for November or December 2011 from Cape Canaveral. Until then, you'll have to content yourself with watching scientists in white lab coats put it together, live.


See Curiosity Rover in action.

NASA
Robot: Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod (DASH)
Robot: Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod (DASH)
Created by: Ronald Fearing at Berkeley University's Biomimetic Millisystems Lab
Size:
3.9 in. long, weighing 0.035 lbs.
Purpose: Search missions

The cockroaches of the robot world, these were designed to search disaster sites. The 16 gram DASH can move 15 body lengths per second and survive a fall at terminal velocity. Fitted with a cell-phone camera and gyros built around a tiny custom processor, the DASH could be carried by the thousand in a backpack or kicked by the boxful out of a helicopter. "We're very interested in the situation where you need to have a lot of robots explore an area very quickly," says Berkeley roboticist and DASH creator Ronald Fearing. 

See DASH in action
UC Berkeley
Robot: da Vinci Si Surgical System
Robot: da Vinci Si Surgical System

Created by: Intuitive Surgical
Size: Multiple units; main robotic unit has four surgical arms
Purpose: Human surgery


Advertised as minimally invasive surgery, the da Vinci system is meant to be used by a surgeon who operates using robotic arms while looking into a monitor. Three arms hold tools, while the fourth is a camera that gives surgeons a view, in a 3D visualization at up to 10 times magnification, of what they are working on. Currently more than 1,000 units are in used in operating rooms worldwide.


See da Vinci in action

Intuitive Surgical
Robot: EMIEW 2
Robot: EMIEW 2
Created by: Hitachi
Size: 2 ft., 7 in. tall, weighing 29 lbs.
Purpose: Designed for office assistance

Two years after the launch of EMIEW 2, Hitachi upgraded the 2010 version with better situational awareness and improved voice recognition. This second robot in Hitachi's EMIEW series (which stands for Excellent Mobility and Interactive Existence as Work-mate) is the perfect deskmate. EMIEW 2 can deliver drinks or documents and take visitors to the right place while navigating desks, chairs, and corridors using map generation and a scanning range finder. Speak to EMIEW 2, and the robot will recognize commands or conversation through voice recognition and a microphone array. And as you follow the robot around the office, this little guy relies on wheels to get around, while with a heavier load, EMIEW 2 kneels down for greater stability.

See EMIEW 2 in action
Bloomberg
Robot: Robotic Fly
Robot: Robotic Fly

Created by: Robert Wood at the Harvard Microrobotics Lab
Size: 1.18 in. wingspan, weighing 0.002 lbs.
Purpose: Reconnaissance or search capabilities

The tiny aerial vehicle pictured here, made with carbon-fiber wings that flap 120 times per second, is the first insect-size robot to fly. Robotics scientist Robert Wood and the students in his lab are building numerous robots designed to mimic insects. Study topics are the movement of cockroaches and the glide of butterflies. Although that first flight of the fly took place between two wires, the goal is to make these mechanical insects fly for miles with a camera attached. The result would be something that Ian Fleming's Q would drool over. See Bloomberg Businessweek's July 29, 2010, profile of Robert Wood.

See the robotic fly in action

Harvard Microbiotics Lab
Robot: Home Exploring Robot Butler (HERB)
Robot: Home Exploring Robot Butler (HERB)

Created by: Intel's Personal Robotics Program and Carnegie Mellon University
Size: 4 ft. tall, 2 ft. wide, with two robotic arms and a two-wheeled base
Purpose: Household chores


The creators of HERB noted that top answers to surveys about what Americans would like robots to do consistently involve household chores such as laundry, dishwashing, and ironing. These simple tasks are no small feat for a robot, however. Enter the butler. That would be HERB, the robot that can throw items in the trash, clear dishes, and place them in the dishwasher. There were reportedly still a few bugs at a recent demonstration; HERB is a long way from mass-market-ready. But it's one step closer to the Jetsons' Rosie.


See HERB in action

Bloomberg
Robot: HRP-4C
Robot: HRP-4C
Created by: Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology
Size: 5 ft., 1 in. and 95 lbs.
Purpose: To be a diva

HRP-4C is among the most advanced humanoid robots out there. She wowed the audience at Tokyo's Digital Content Expo in October when she danced at a demonstration, using some 30 internal motors to rock out. Her face was controlled by an additional eight motors as she sang--yes, sang--the song to accompany the dance.

See HRP-4C in action
Bloomberg
Robot: Justin
Robot: Justin

Created by: Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics at the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt (DLR)
Size: Life-size, with various configurations
Purpose: From making coffee to repairing satellites


Designed by the German version of NASA, Justin is intended to use arms and fingers for delicate tasks. In one demonstration, officials showed Justin making coffee. Most recently, Justin was reportedly rolled out as a possible telepresence robot for space applications. In the long run, the hope would be that a button could be pressed on Earth and Justin could do complex tasks in space. Justin's sensors and cameras create a 3D view of his surroundings that help Justin perform tasks with a certain level of autonomy.


See Justin in action

DLR
Robot: MAARS System
Robot: MAARS System

Created by: QinetiQ North America
Size: a few feet high depending on configuration; weighs 350 lbs.
Purpose: Remotely operated weapons system


Designed by the same company that has shipped 3,500 TALON robots to Iraq and Afghanistan for dismantling improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the new Modular Advance Armed Robotic System (MAARS) has left the robotic arm at home. Instead, MAARS is outfitted with 40mm high-explosive grenades and an M240B machine gun with 450 rounds. Three prototype models, called SWORDS, made it to Baghdad for 18 months. "All we know is that the company commander reported to the Army Science Board in 2009 that the SWORDS saved lives," says Bob Quinn, vice-president for TALON operations at QinetiQ in McLean, Va. "His only request was to send more." Army officials say SWORDS robots never fired a shot outside of testing. The latest models are outfitted with extra cameras and other capabilities to increase situational awareness for the soldier behind the video game-style controller. Quinn says he is not concerned about 2009 reports that insurgents hacked into the video feeds of unmanned aerial vehicles operating in Afghanistan and says the software and security on MAARS are solid. Still, an expert in legal issues surrounding robots, Ryan Calo, says guns on robots make him concerned. "It turns out to be next to impossible to debug software," Calo says. "You can have a sense of what a program is going to do, but getting it 100 percent right is not possible." Fewer than 10 MAARS robots are currently with Special Forces units, Quinn says. Army officials say MAARS robots are not currently being tested in theaters of war.


See the MAARS system in action

QinetiQ
Robot: Mobile untethered robots (microbots)
Robot: Mobile untethered robots (microbots)
Created by: Bruce Donald at Duke University
Size: 200 microns long (smaller than the width of a human hair)
Purpose: Studying possibilities for manipulating cells

Researchers at Duke University have created dozens of microbots, robots small enough to line up 200 on a single M&M. "They are programmable to do simple tasks," says Duke scientist Bruce Donald. "It's the same as a car. We spent many years building something that could drive around at that scale." The future is now open for the tiny mobile devices, with possible medical collaborations or jobs repairing computer chips.

See the microbots in action
Duke University
Robot: Murata Girl
Robot: Murata Girl
Created by: Murata Manufacturing
Size: 1 ft., 7 in. tall; weighing 13 lbs.
Purpose: Unicycling

Launched in 2008, Murata Girl was the unicycling better half of bicycling Murata Boy. Both robots were equipped with gyro sensors to control motion and keep balance, sensors to detect obstacles, cameras to transmit images, and the ability to operate through Bluetooth. The 2010 model of Murata Girl was upgraded to unicycle along a tiny S-curve beam without falling off, perfect for the robot circus. And in case you were wondering, a press release on Murata Girl lets us know that she a Virgo who is "physically active but shy."

See Murata Girl in action
Getty Images
Robot: Octavia
Robot: Octavia
Created by: Intelligent Systems Section of the Naval Research Lab
Size: 5 ft., 8 in.
Purpose: Interface with U.S. naval personnel

Although Octavia looks more like C3PO than like a humanoid, her eyebrows can shoot up in a skeptical response and her eyes will turn to track a questioner. This is what scientists at the Naval Research Lab were going for in trying to design a robot that can interact well with a human. Classified as an MDS robot--mobile, dexterous, social--Octavia is packed with infrared and laser sensors and microphones to communicate. When thinking, Octavia blinks. When shocked, she opens her mouth as she knits her brows.

See Octavia in action
U.S. Navy
Robot: Partner Robots
Robot: Partner Robots

Created by: Toyota
Size: 4 ft., 3 in.; 119 lbs.
Purpose: Assistance and elderly care


Toyota's partner robots, which made their debut in 2005 playing drums and trumpets, and a 2007 debut playing violin, can do any number of things to help people. Currently the robot comes in five versions, including a so-called mountable robot that is essentially a wheelchair with legs instead of wheels.


See Toyota's partner robots in action

Bloomberg
Robot: PR2
Robot: PR2
Created by: Willow Garage
Size: Up to 5 ft., 4 in. tall
Purpose: Open source robotics as a robot design platform

The software base for the robotics industry is siloed at this point, with every company and garage tinkerer creating operating systems from scratch. Willow Garage spokesman Tim Smith says the company was "founded on the premise that 90 percent of robot scientists spend their time wasting their time." Started and funded by ex-Googler Scott Hassan, Willow Garage is trying to create the standard robot operating system (ROS). They began by building robots with open source software and giving 11 of them away to research institutions and companies, at a total cost of $4 million. The robots went on sale last month at $400,000, or a discounted price of $280,000 to a company or institution with a history of contributing to open source projects. "You have to be a roboticist to want one of these," Smith says. "They don't help around the house. These are platforms. They don't do much until they are put in the hands of researchers who decide what they will do." Georgia Tech researchers have programmed PR2 to work on elder care, while scientists at Berkeley taught PR2 to fold towels.

See PR2 in action
Willow Garage
Robot: QB
Robot: QB
Created by: Anybots
Size: 5 ft. tall, weighing 35 lbs.
Purpose: Remote avatar

Telepresence is a big buzzword in robotics these days. The idea is for people to use robots in multiple locations so as to be in many places at once. QB is a telepresence robot that went on sale this fall from Anybots, in Mountain View, Calif. For $15,000, you can get a robot that will take your place in meetings and conferences at work. The operator sees through video chat capabilities and can operate the robot, set on two wheels, as it moves through corridors and rooms. To help interact, QB has a laser pointer, twin high-resolution cameras, a 3.5-in. touch screen, and speakers. Best of all, meetings can't drag on any longer than the six-hour battery life allows.

See QB in action
Anybots
Robot: Ranger
Robot: Ranger
Created by: Andy Ruina at Cornell University
Size: Stands 3 ft. tall and weighs 17 lbs.
Purpose: Walk using minimal energy

Many roboticists are concerned with maximizing performance independent of energy use, while Andy Ruina is trying to maximize energy use. The Cornell Ranger can't have a conversation with you, and the "eyes" are just foam bouncers for protection in case it falls. But this summer the Ranger broke the record for nonstop distance walked by an untethered legged robot by walking around a 1/8 mile track at Cornell University 108 times in 10 hours before the batteries went dead. "We are trying to understand the mechanics of walking," Ruina said. "All the other robots we have seen use way, way more energy than a human uses when a human walks."

See Ranger in action
Cornell University
Robot: Stickybot III
Robot: Stickybot III
Created by: Mark Cutkosky at Stanford University's Biomimetics and Dextrous Manipulation Lab
Size: 2 ft. long and weighs 1 lb.
Purpose: Climbing walls

To learn how to climb walls, Stanford roboticist Mark Cutkosky turned to the best wall climbers around: geckos. To create nonsticky adhesive materials, geckos showed the way to van der Waals force, the sum total of attracting or repelling forces between molecules. "The trick is that it's not very strong, and it only works over very, very short distances," Cutkosky says. What he means by very short is molecular-length scales. If you can make van der Waals forces work for you, as Cutkosky has, you can climb nearly any surface. One secret behind it is directional adhesion, and, as Cutkosky points out, geckos have it. "If you feel their little feet, they don't feel sticky at all. But as soon as you pull on it, suddenly it grabs. Our adhesives work the same way. And it makes all the difference." The most recent version of Stickybot is a bit bigger, with 19 microprocessors that are responsible for moving the joints. Bigger means heavier, so Stickbot needed a bigger tail for balance if the first two legs miss a step. "If you think about most animals that climb really well," says Cutkosky, "almost all of them have tails."

See Stickybot in action
Stanford University