2009 has been an amazing year in the world of robots and Singularity Hub is here to tell you all about it! Thats right, its time to unveil our second annual roundup of the best robots of the year. In 2009 robots continued their advance towards world domination with several impressive breakouts in areas such as walking, automation, and agility, while still lacking in adaptability and reasoning ability. It will be several years until robots can gain the artificial intelligence that will truly make them remarkable, but in the meantime they are still pretty awesome. If you haven't seen it yet you won't want to miss our best robots of 2008 story from last year, but now lets not delay any further and get on with the best robots of 2009:
Nextage, the latest humanoid robot from Kawada, and the Motoman SDA 10 both put on impressive manufacturing demonstrations this year in the videos below. When watching the videos it is easy to see why factory workers should be terrified for their job security. The robots demonstrate agility with their hands, the ability to work together, and the ability to divide portions of a complex task amongst themselves. As with all robots these days, these humanoid manufacturing robots are superior to humans in strength, endurance, and dependability, but seem ill equipped to adapt to changing situations that have not been anticipated ahead of time. And yet the path is clear - these robots will get even more capable and adaptable with each passing year. Factory workers look out!
Of course for most industrial applications humanoid robots are not needed. In these cases the humans aren't losing their jobs...they have already lost them. Across the globe humans have been replaced and improved with countless incredible robots that are designed to perform one type of task with repetition and speed that is simply beyond human. One of our favorite examples of robotic manufacturing prowess is in the task of sorting and moving all manner of objects, from pancakes, to sausages, to screws and bolts. The flexpicker is one of our favorites in this category. Check it out:
The flexpicker is not the only player in the sorting game, nor is it even the undisputed champ. Late in 2009 Adept Technology claimed that its Quattro s650 was the world's fastest sorting/packing robot on the planet. Watch this workhorse in action below:
When it comes to industrial robots, it isn't always about speed. Sometimes the name of the game is agility, range of motion, and versatility. In such cases, the 2009 debut of ABB's IRB120 was a powerful entrant to the field, offering the versatility of a human arm, but with the strength and endurance for repetition that we expect from robots. The IRB120 is "ABB's smallest ever multipurpose industrial robot weighing just 25kg and capable of handling a payload of 3kg (4kg for vertical wrist) with a reach of 580mm." See this robotic wonder below:
Lest you think industrial robots are destined to remain hidden behind the relatively closed doors of manufacturing facilities, witness perhaps my favorite robot demonstration of the year - robotic chefs in a Japanese raman noodle restaurant! The robots are fully autonomous, taking a customer order and cooking it from start to finish. This includes boiling the noodles, pouring broth, adding spices and toppings, and so on. The orders are complex too, requiring the robots to take customer preference for amount and type of sauce, salt, noodle, and so on. The finished product is handed off to a human server who brings the food to the customer’s table. The irony could not be more real as we witness the lowly human in the role of a mere server while the robot takes on the cooking:
With such awesome capabilities in tow, we shouldn't be surprised that these robots (or at least their human creators) exhibit an urge to show off from time to time. In October 2009 ABB Robotics stunned us with its “Fanta Challenges” where ABB robots move metal rods in between six packs of Fanta soda cans at a blistering pace with only 1 millimeter of clearance between the metal rod and the cans. The feat would already be impressive if the 6 pack of cans was stationary, but then ABB ups the ante by putting the cans on a tray and programming another robot to rapidly move the tray around. Don't miss the video below:
In the world of humanoid robots, 2009 was a bumper year with some outstanding demonstrations from multiple efforts around the world. By far our favorite humanoid demonstration of the year comes from robotic phenom Boston Robotics and its latest robot dubbed Petman. In the video below, watch in awe as the humanoid Petman robot conquers the treadmill in classic human style:
Right on the heels of Petman was the Dexter humanoid robot from Anybots, just up the street from Hub Headquarters in Silicon Valley. Dexter can remain stable on its two legs as it jumps, walks, and is even kicked by nearby human. Pretty sweet:
A surprising entrant into the humanoid robot field this year came from Toyota as part of its now multi-year partner robot effort. The Toyota robot to our knowledge is the fastest large scale humanoid robot on the planet right now with an ability to run at an impressive 7 Km/hr (4 mph). Check out this running humanoid in action below:
Willow Garage made waves in the world of humanoid robots, not just for creating a robot, but more importantly for creating an open source platform upon which the entire world can build robots of the future. In 2009 Willow Garage announced that it had achieved its second major milestone: getting a robot to navigate it’s way around their labs, identifying and plugging itself into electrical outlets. The Personal Robot mark 2 (PR2) wandered around the labs, opening doors, and plugging in to 9 different outlets and identifying one that was unreachable. See below:
Although most of the robots we cover seem to come from Japan and the US, Europe held its own this year with progress from their Justin humanoid robot program. Justin is a collaboration between the University of Napoli and the German Space Agency, DLR under a European project called Physical Human-Robot Interaction: Dependability and Safety. The Justin robot features software algorithms that allows the hands and arms to dynamically react to their environment and to each other to avoid collision and complete tasks:
The ASIMO robot has consistently been a perennial player in the humanoid robotics genre, and 2009 was not exception. At Carnegie Mellon, researchers were able to teach ASIMO to dynamically navigate around cut out shapes that represented real-world barriers. Able to dodge spinning blades, Frogger-like moving lines, and dynamic environments, ASIMO showed us again why its one of the top humanoid bots out there:
Random Other Awesome Robots
The Blob Bot from iRobot defnitely stacks up as one of the more interesting robots of the year. Keeping in tune with several scifi visions from past and present, the blob bot is a first generation attempt at creating a robot that can morph itself to slip through cracks or even resemble other objects. The blob bot is built of a shell of many jammable silicone sacs with a central fluid reservoir in the center. By controlling pressure in each sac and the center reservoir, the blob can expand and contract in order to change shape and flop around. This robot is nowhere near to becoming anything more than a novel prototype for now, but still it deserves an honorable mention for breaking some exciting ground. A true solution to this type of robot will likely use some sort of nanotechnology, and would thus appear to be decades away from realization:
Another interesting robot this year was the DASH robot from UC Berkeley. DASH or Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod is a six legged robot made from cardboard and polymer. It’s the size of your open hand, weighs just 16 grams, can run up to 1.5 m/s, and survives falls of 28 meters without damage! This cockroach bot is really something to behold:
The stickybot from Stanford has been around for a number of years, but in 2009 the gecko inspired wall climbing robot underwent its third revision and is now more capable than ever. The robot looks almost exactly like a gecko and the adhesive on its padded feet are derived from the tiny hairs the lizards use to cling. The dry adhesive technique uses micro-hairs and intramolecular (van der waals) forces to stick bot to wall.
iRobot impressed us earlier this year with video footage of a pocket sized robotic scout it has been building for the army. The robotic scout is small and able to conquer rugged terrain. By itself the robot doesn't look like much, but it doesn't take much imagination to envision the power of a fleet of hundreds or thousands of these things taking video, picking up samples, planting bombs, and generally wreaking havoc in enemy or even civilian territory.
Although the robots themselves are fairly simple, MIT's creation of robotic gardeners is so cool that they have earned their way into our roundup of the year's best robots. MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is pioneering the field of automated farming. During a semester long experiment, CSAIL’s researchers created a laboratory farm: tomato plants in terra cotta pots with artificial turf for grass. The goal of the experiment: to see if these tomatoes could be grown, tended, and harvested by robot caretakers. Enjoy the video below:
The HRP-4C showed in 2009 that robots can be useful AND look good while doing it by wowing the world with its female manga style hottie robot. Of course there are no technical barriers to making robots look more human, but nevertheless robot makers rarely try to make their creations look too human, perhaps in respect to human fear of the uncanny valley. Even in the case of the HRP-4C, we hear that the creators intentionally limited how lifelike their robot hottie would look. The positive and overwhelming press that this robot received, however, should serve as a sign to robot creators that the public is indeed ready to see more lifelike robots.
Well, that ends our roundup of the best robots of 2009. There are dozens of other awesome robots that didn't make the cut and certainly a few have somehow evaded our radar. Feel free to post links to other great robots in the comments. In the meantime, my cyborg implant is telling me that some awesome robots are going to come out of the gate first thing in 2010, so why not follow our RSS feed and stay tuned for more!