It used to be that the most sophisticated robots in the world were the animatronic presidents at Disney World. While they do impressively mimic the movements of a human and look pretty convincingly like the United States' founding fathers, they are far from what we would consider high tech today. They don't think and they don't solve any real technological problems. For all intents and purposes, they are marionettes with motors and gears.
Next came robots with a useful function. Robots that, for example, build cars. These giant, actuated arms take the place of a human on an assembly line, lifting and placing parts on a frame, performing spot welds or turning screws. Really, they are just machines that perform several simple operations instead of just one. While their ability to move flexibly and with precision is impressive, they can't respond to a changing environment. They just go through the motions, much like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington at Epcot Center.
But now we have arrived at a new age. An age where robots can not only move with precision, but do some altogether astounding things. Students can make robots that can hunt specific objects. They can navigate obstacles. They can approach some approximation of problem solving thought. They can even beat us at games. A new robotic age is fast approaching and the world will never be the same after the five robots on this list are released to, or unleashed upon, humanity.
From tiny little robot insect swarms to seven foot tall humanoid behemoths, each of the robots on this list is poised to change how we interact with the world.Here are five new robots that are truly game-changing technology.
5 5: Robobees
The incredibly imaginatively engineered and unimaginatively named Robobee is a tiny little robotic bee, one of the smallest man-made devices to achieve flight. Barely taller than a penny, Robobee is an impressive feat of engineering.
It's pretty easy to make something big. You have all kinds of free space to allow moving parts to do their thing – making something small, yet functional, is very difficult, especially when it comes to flight. You have to have the ability to generate enough thrust to get airborne and stay that way without making the thing too heavy to fly. To achieve this, the Robobee designers invented a new kind of artificial muscles.
Building on such a tiny scale – the robobee has a 3cm wingspan - presented the designers with never-before encountered challenges. Besides the fact that rotors, gears and other mechanical parts were simply impossible to create small enough, they had to consider that such a tiny, light robot could be blown far off-course by no more than a sneeze. Having overcome these problems and more, the designers hope that robobees will someday be employed in swarms for use in artificial pollination and search and rescue.
Whether or not you find the idea of swarms of tiny, semi-smart robots creepy or awesome, flying microbots are coming and they will certainly changing the world in big ways. The question is, what do you do with them when they lose power in mid air or crash? They are definitely not biodegradable, and it seems unlikely that their power sources will be made of anything non-toxic.
4 4: Robobass
The Robobass is, ass the name suggests, a robotic fish. Now you may be thinking of a metal and plastic shark of some kind like you may have seen in the last recent Terminator film, but this robotic fish is actually much cooler. And a lot less terrifying, which is nice.
The Robobass is one example of a new discipline of robotics known as soft robots. They're made of flexible materials and articulated by liquid moving through flexible channels, much like blood through veins. Interestingly, this is a lot like how some jumping spiders leap long distances, sending their blood from one extreme of their body to another with such force it launches them through the air at incredible speed. Is it any wonder then that, in a fraction of a second, Robobass can switch direction and execute an escape maneuver much like a real fish?
Soft robots are revolutionary for a few reasons. Firstly, you don't have to worry about being smacked by one – they may be heavy, but at least they aren't hard. It's kind of like the difference between being hit with a baseball bat or an American Gladiators style padded pugil stick. Secondly, they can navigate much more easily and less awkwardly – like the difference between a worm and a beetle. In the case of Robobass, consider how a hard underwater robot like a self-guided torpedo has to avoid obstacles. Robobass could theoretically kick off those same obstacles like a swimmer off a pool's wall.
Robotics engineers have long been taking cues from nature and, if you look at any larger-than-insect animals, you may notice nature has a preference for soft creatures.
3 3: Neato BotVac
Neato's BotVac is a robotic vacuum intended to compete with iRobot's Roomba. What makes the Neato so revolutionary isn't that it is supposedly a better vacuum. It's not that it looks cooler than a Roomba or any of the other sales copy on the Neato website. What makes BotVac so game-changing is that it is the smallest consumer robot that uses the same navigational technology as Google's self-driving cars.
That's right; the BotVac can sense its location, surroundings and obstacles and make instant plans and decisions, and even change those plans based on the layout of your home or whether or not your kid left a toy on the stairs. Some people aren't capable of that before two cups of coffee.
Taking existing high-tech solutions and applying them to everyday problems is the essence of what robotics is meant to do. I'm not sure what it says about our consumer culture that the first robot to take this step is a vacuum, but it's a step forward, if nothing else.
2 2: SandFlea
Boston Dynamics' SandFlea doesn't look like much at first glance. Indeed, the SandFlea primarily behaves like an RC car. Because it is. But what sets this little bot apart its amazing ability to jump over thirty feet with amazing accuracy.
Navigation is what separates robots from computers. A robot moves – that's its essence – and how well it moves defines it. The SandFlea solves the issue of how to get to the second or third floor or roof of a small building with an elegant and entertaining approach. It pauses, lifts itself at an angle on two triangular feet and then launches itself into the air and onto its target.
The SandFlea is intended for police and military use like all of Boston Dynamics' products, and it's already been adopted by at least one SWAT department. Putting itself in harms way saves police officers' lives, letting the SandFlea do recon while taking one for the team. Besides that, it looks like a just a heck of a lot of fun to pilot.
1 1: Atlas
Atlas is the name that Boston Dynamics has given to the most Terminator-like robot currently in development. Atlas – still in prototype mode - looks more like a human than any other robot around. Which is to say it's shaped like a person with legs, torso and arms approximating what a human would look like if you crossed him with a stainless steel erector set and made him seven feet tall.
Atlas is, frankly, scary. What makes Atlas revolutionary is not just his – I mean, its – ability to stand, walk and balance. Petman, Atlas' predecessor, could do all that. What makes Atlas unique is that it is designed to do all that and manipulate its environment and use tools designed for a human. Yes, a robot that is meant to mimic a human and has the strength of ten men. Let's hope this one doesn't fall into the wrong hands.