Robots glide alongside humans these days. They can go to school and attend conferences on our behalf, like VGO’s remote presence robot. They can also run, do push-ups, fly, perch, crawl, swim, care for us, mimic us and sometimes scare us with their capabilities.
"Some of them are really great, some just look cool," said Ayanna Howard, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech who specializes in robotics, human-inspired control and autonomous systems.
Here Howard highlights 10 of her picks for the most impressive robotic talents to emerge in recent years. If you’re worried about an uprising, Howard points out that there is an IEEE standard on robot ethics.
Move Like an Athlete: Petman
The Boston Dynamics robot Petman was released in late 2011 after a long time being under wraps. It’s easy to see why. The anthropomorphic robot created to test chemical protection in clothing can actually balance itself. A YouTube video shows the robot walking on a treadmill, righting itself from a shove and doing push-ups.
“It’s doing all these things based on current information, real-time feedback, which also means that it’s much more robust and adaptable when you put it in the real world,” Howard said.
Prior to Petman, Boston Dynamics released a Star Wars-like robot called BigDog in 2008 that can haul gear over rough terrain. The size of a mule, BigDog was designed with the goal of being “a robot that can go anywhere people and animals can go.”
Courtesy of Geminoid, DK
Resemble a Human: Geminoid
When Japanese roboticists from Osaka University and the robotics firm Kokoro released the latest in their Geminoid series, it made tech writers everywhere wonder if it was a hoax. It wasn’t. The teleoperated android looked exactly like Henrik Scharfe, an associate professor at Aalborg University in Denmark.
"Geminoid is definitely one of these things where, even in the robotics world, it’s impressive," Howard said. She added that the robot broaches the "uncanny valley" issue, forcing us to think about where robotics should go and where it shouldn’t. Geminoid also reminded some of the 2009 movie “Surrogates,” where robotic avatars live life for humans.
Although the Geminoid robot is intensely realistic, it still needs to be fully operated by a human. Like the Wizard of Oz.
Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control
Build While Flying: Flying Machine
Construction robots and ones that fly aren't all that unusual, but it took a group of roboticists and architects to put those two skills together. The result is a team of "robotic quadrocopters" that cooperated to construct a 20-foot tower from lightweight foam packaging blocks.
The robots were built by Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich roboticists and Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler. They used a platform they called the "Flying Machine Arena" which allowed them to test fast-paced motions on the ground and in the air.
Working in tandem from a blueprint along trajectories that avoided collisions with each other and the building structure, the quadrocopters gripped the foam bricks and quickly flew each one into place.
"It's a first," Howard said. "It makes sense." The Flying Machine project is one of those things, she added, that makes us go, "Why didn't we think about this before?"
Continuously Explore Underwater: The Beluga
Princeton mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Naomi Leonard is known for creating teams of autonomous underwater robots. The torpedo-like gliders she developed in the early 2000s required little battery power and were programmed to detect their surroundings and behave much like a school of fish would.
Since then, Leonard's Dynamical Control Systems Laboratory developed an autonomous submersible called the Beluga that moves like a fish-submarine hybrid. These test robots can also go up and down vertically, and are currently being deployed in a 20,000-gallon tank at Princeton.
What's remarkable about Leonard's robots, Howard said, is their ability to endure for a long time while gathering data about currents, flows and sea life.
"Long-term also means long-term without getting lost," she said. "We have lost submarines, we lose things all the time because as soon as they go underwater, you pray and hope they come back up."
Lend Astronauts a Hand: Robonaut 2
NASA has a solid track record of using autonomous vehicles and robotics for space exploration. The Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER) became a landmark for long-lasting systems. Now a human-like robot called the Robonaut 2 is helping astronauts on the job.
For the Robonaut 2, or R2, NASA worked with General Motors on the design. This new version is described as a state-of-the-art highly dexterous anthropomorphic robot that can operate the same tools that astronauts use. That dexterity could spare humans from dangerous tasks on the International Space Station.
"You're going to start seeing more and more interaction between Robonaut 2 and the astronauts up there," Howard said. "It's basically a humanoid in space."
Navigate Tough Environments: Perching UAV
While not anthropomorphic or even particularly sexy, Stanford's Perching UAV got praise from Howard for its algorithms and capacity.
The unmanned aerial vehicle, which made a splash in 2010, resembles a paper airplane but is actually a glider that can soar through the air and then cling like a bat to different surfaces. The long-term vision is to make a tiny UAV that silently navigates a city, communicating constantly with human controllers, and then moves along surfaces using tiny spines on its feet.
"It's not pre-programmed," Howard said. "They have similar robots climbing glass, on cement, and there's no reprogramming of it."
Share Instructions with Other Bots: PR2
The Menlo Park robotics research lab Willow Garage grabbed much-deserved attention for its robotics platform.
"The story of Willow Garage is basically they hired a bunch of really smart robotics folks who wanted to not necessarily work in the university environment," Howard said. "They put them together and said, 'Go at it.'"
What emerged is the open-sourced PR2 platform. Howard described it as a repository to help roboticists avoid reinventing the wheel. Willow Garage researchers showed PR2's potential by programming their own humanoid robot to fold laundry, clean up trash, fetch a beer, play pool, and even plug itself into an outlet to recharge.
Run Around Without Human Control: ASIMO 2
Historically, there are cultural reasons for the differing appearances of Japanese robots and American ones, Howard said. Science fiction taught Americans to fear robots that look like humans "they were here to destroy the world!" while the Japanese see human likeness as far more friendly, she said.
One of the world's most notable humanoid robots is Honda's two-legged ASIMO 2, which debuted publicly in November 2011. The six-foot ASIMO appears more like an astronaut than the latest Robonaut. It can run faster than 5 mph, take the stairs, hop on one foot and handle uneven surfaces -- all with a great deal of independence.
ASIMO 2 doesn't require a human controller. Embedded sensors and sophisticated programming help it detect the surroundings and autonomously respond to people nearby. Predictive capabilities allow it to anticipate what to do next. The robot understands several people speaking Japanese simultaneously. Its nimble fingers can gently hold objects and communicate in sign language.
"They were working on this at least since the last one," Howard said. And that was 20 years ago. "In the commercial world, there are most likely things going on that we don't know about just because it's proprietary."
Socially Engage Humans: Simon
Andrea Thomaz, an assistant professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology was one of roboticist Cynthia Breazeal's students at MIT. It's no wonder that Thomaz's Simon has social capabilities that put it on par with Breazeal's expressive Nexi bot.
Simon's head is intended to have a youthful appearance, giving it a character that the lab hoped would set realistic expectations about what it can do. Simon has anthropomorphic hands but LED-lit ears give the bot a sweet non-human look that steers clear of the uncanny valley.
Although Howard called the Nexi bot functionality more advanced, she credits Simon with natural physical interactions. The lab's goal is to use Simon to better understand human-robot interactions, and make a fast-learning robot that doesn't require constant reprogramming. Through voice and facial recognition, Simon has learned quite a bit, including how to clean up a workspace.
"The innovative work with Simon focuses on making it more natural based on its physical movements, rather than through expressions," Howard said.
UNC School of Medicine's Department of Surger
Help Perform Surgery: da Vinci Surgical System
First approved by the FDA in 2000 to perform advanced surgical techniques, the da Vinci surgical system is a well-known medical robotic assistant.
A surgeon can manipulate one of several robotic arms, depending on the procedure. Detachable instruments can perform tasks such as suturing and clamping, without the risk of a tremor or shake. A 3D imaging system shows the surgeon a high-resolution view of what's happening in real-time, with the ability to shift viewpoints using a pedal mechanism.
According to, Brown University's Division of Biology and Medicine this system reduces hospital stays by about half, speeds recovery, lessens pain, and reduces the probability of infection to nearly zero. "The rates of surgeries using da Vinci increases every year," Howard said. "You're starting to see more and more medical students being trained on it, hospitals buying these systems, and patients requesting robotic surgery."
The $1 million da Vinci system by Intuitive Surgical isn't the only robot with FDA approval. A Japanese animatronic seal called Paro was also approved. Designed as a medical device, the plush sensor-laden robot responds to touch, temperature, speech, and light with different behaviors such as blinking and cooing. Robot therapy has arrived.
Loyal readers may recall that, late last year, we alerted the populace to an alarming Kickstarter project — a 15-foot-tall fighting robot designed to house a human pilot and do battle in arena combat scenarios.
That Kickstarter campaign ultimately failed, but the MegaBots initiative itself did not. Having secured funding from corporate sponsors, the engineering team has apparently completed enough of the robot to start throwing some international shade.
In a video on the MegaBots homepage, the engineering team has challenged the makers of Japan’s giant Kuratas robot to a fight. The Kuratas machine has been online for a couple of years now, touring expos and trade shows, and even going up for sale at one point.
“We just finished tightening the bolts on the Mark 2, America’s first fully-functional giant fighting robot,” says a MegaBots team rep in the video, addressing the Japan team directly. “We have a giant robot, you have a giant robot,” “You know what needs to happen. We challenge you to a duel.”
Both robots are piloted by a driver actually inside the machine, and each is equipped with various weapons. Kind of. The MegaBot is designed to fling giant paint balls at more than 100 miles per hour, while the smaller but slicker-looking Kuratas is built for both melee and BB projectile combat.
In keeping with international fighting robot protocol — and competitive pride — the Kuratas team has issued their own response video.
Kogoro Kurata, CEO of Suidobashi Heavy Industry, has accepted the challenge, on the condition that the robots fight hand-to-hand.
“My reaction? Come on guys, make it cooler,” Kurata says in the response video. “Just building something huge and sticking guns on it is … super American.”
As you can see in the videos, it’s all rather playful and squarely in the tradition of P.T. Barnum style spectacle and hype. Still, if all goes well, we’ll have a heavyweight robot title match next year, and there’s nothing wrong with that.