Merriam-Webster defines a robot as “a machine that resembles a living creature in being capable of moving independently (as by walking or rolling on wheels) and performing complex actions (such as grasping and moving objects).” But in the mind of a design engineer, a robot can be a collection of mechanical and digital systems that can install wallboard like a human, or it can merely be a piece of fabric that has embedded intelligence, a shiny plastic puppy, or even a LEGO-like contraption that can shape-shift its form to better navigate its environment.
These examples are only four of the robots selected by EE Times (Electronic Engineering Times) as the 10 best from the world of robotic research in 2018. Half come from university workbenches, and the others are mostly the products of company and government research. What they all share in common is a form that sheathes intelligence that enables dexterity and, in some cases, even solves problems. How they differ is in the ways they specialize in their own unique human characteristics.
The EE Times has offered design engineers and management executives news and analysis of the latest technologies and business developments in the global electronics industry since 1973, and robotics has become a major focus of the editorial staff. In a year-end article, engineer Cabe Atwell presented a list of what the publication called the “Top 10 Robots of 2018.”
1. Atlas, Boston Dynamics
(See above. Image courtesy Boston Dynamics)
Atlas is one of the most recognizable androids. You might have seen videos of it doing backflips, jogging around a rural neighborhood, or running up two-foot high stairs onto a platform. Standing six feet tall, the robot is descended from an earlier bipedal model called PETMAN (Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin) that was built for testing chemical-protection suits. Boston Dynamics, founded in 1992 when it spun off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has more on their stable of robots available at bostondynamics.com.
2. MINERVA II1, JAXA
The surface of an asteroid. Image courtesy JAXA
The image above was taken on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu by one of two robotic rovers that were deployed by the MINERVA-II1 lander. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) made astronomic history on September 21, 2018, when the MINERVA-II1 rovers separated from the Hayabusa2 spacecraft and became the first manufactured “objects to explore movement on an asteroid surface.” The rovers moved by hopping around “using torque generated by a pair of rotating masses housed inside the vehicle.” Their power sources included solar cells and double-layer capacitors. The stereo, wide-angle cameras sent still images and videos back to Earth. More images of the asteroid can be seen at www.hayabusa2.jaxa.jp/en/topics/20180922e/.
3. AIBO, Sony
Image courtesy Sony
You might recognize Aibo the robotic puppy. Actually he’s 20 years old, having been first introduced in 1999. But that original version was just a great idea waiting for further artificial intelligence (AI) development. In the latest version, Aibo now has eyes that house a camera that can recognize up to 100 faces and can distinguish between adults, other pets, and objects. Deep learning algorithms help him read your demeanor. Another camera on his back can learn the layout of his new home so that you can tell him to go wait in the living room and he will. Or she will—You can assign a gender through the apps, where you’ll also find a whole repertoire of tricks. Connected to the cloud with ATT service, Aibo won’t get lost even when away from home. If you want a more complete picture of why Aibo costs $2,900, check out the CNET review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGo0TwNXXuo.
4. Shape-Shifting Robot, Cornell University
Image courtesy Cornell University
Robots can be limited by their configuration, just as humans are limited by their own anatomy. When you can’t squeeze through the opening in the fence, what if you were able to detach your arms and have them grab onto your back while you press your narrowed torso through the opening? Sounds a little freaky, but that’s exactly the algorithm that Cornell’s engineers adopted to make their shape-shifting modular robots. The removing and rearranging of modular cubes is done with magnetic surfaces and wheels on the blocks. Each is Wi-Fi enabled and connected to a system that collects data and uses cameras to assess the robot’s surroundings. It can then reassemble itself into the most practical shape to suit the environment and task. The flexibility enabled by the shuffling also provides a self-healing mode if it’s ever damaged. Check out this video for a variety of the robot’s problem-solving maneuvers: www.cnet.com/videos/this-shape-shifting-robot-gets-the-job-done/.
5. OmniSkins, Yale University
Image courtesy Yale University YouTube video
So if you’re able to create a robot that can constantly rebuild itself by shape-shifting, what about something like a robotic coat that could be put on a person, or even an inanimate object, and impart robotic dexterity, strength, and maybe even intelligence to the wearer? Yale University researchers have something like this with their OmniSkin robotic elastic sheets that have embedded sensors, actuators, and wiring. With them you can wrap the legs of a stuffed toy horse and direct the horse to walk, jump, or dance. Or, if you were to combine flexing, holding, and grabbing, and then shape the skin into a wearable glove, imagine how helpful that would be for someone with limited motion in their hands. Atwell suggests using more than one OmniSkin to “provide simultaneous compression and bending that would allow a foam tube to move like an inchworm or even a shirt that can correct poor posture.”
6. BOLT, Sphero
Image courtesy Sphero
BOLT is an educational robotic ball that’s app-enabled for play and to teach kids programming as well. The student designs the activities or games for the ball by coding or drawing. In the app, you can draw the directions for the ball to travel or use drag-and-drop Scratch programming blocks to control the ball to interact with other balls, move, make noises, find true North, etc. The 8 X 8 LED light matrix display also can be programmed. This Thursday Learn Day video will give you an idea about BOLT’s educational potential: www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2Ffu9iG1YQ.
7. Spear-Fishing Robot, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Photo courtesy Worcester Polytechnic Institute
The underwater autonomous robot being developed by students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is designed to search for and kill the invasive lionfish that are destroying the coral and marine ecosystems in the Caribbean. With the revolving barrel action of a Gatling gun, the robot has AI, computer vision, and machine learning systems that enable it to discern what a lionfish looks like and to recognize what else in the vicinity can’t be targeted. In controlled tests, the system has a 95% efficiency rate that still must be improved before the underwater drones are released to roam free in general areas.
8. RSTAR, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Photo courtesy Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
The RSTAR (Rising Sprawl-Tuned Autonomous Robot) has three spoked wheels arranged on the outside of two arms for travel over normal terrain. When the footing gets loose, on sand for instance, the RSTAR can turn itself over and use the yellow spoked wheels that will crawl or climb. The body can also go flat so the larger wheels extend at right angles to grip and propel against side surfaces, such as within pipes and against walls. The RSTAR is planned for search and rescue missions, and larger models are expected in the future.
9. HAMR, Harvard University
Image courtesy Harvard University
The Harvard Ambulatory Microrobot (HAMR), aka the cockroach, is mobile in three of four possible environments. It can walk on land, on water, and underwater. Its only restriction is flying. The way it manages maneuvering on water and underwater involves surface tension buoyancy to keep it on top and a process called electrowetting in combination with reducing the footpads’ contact angle to go below the surface. At the present stage of development, a ramp is required to get the cockroach up out of the water and back on land. The penny in the photo show the relative size of the microrobot.
10. HRP-5, AIST
Image courtesy AIST from YouTube video
The Tokyo research center known as the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, or AIST, has created an android called HRP-5 to address the decline of workers available in Japan for construction work. The robot is trained to do simple heavy jobs such as hanging plywood or Sheetrock using two basic skills: object detection and environment detection.
Atwell includes in his list of notables four obituaries for 2018. Two were social robots, and two were manufacturing robots. Kuri (home assistant) from Mayfield Robotics and Jibo (social bot) were both discontinued last year, probably in part due to the invasion of a variety of smart speakers.
More surprising, though, was the shuttering of Rethink Robotics in Boston, Mass., on October 3, 2018. Introduced by two pioneers in robotics in 2008, Rodney Brooks and Ann Whittaker, the company’s two assembly-line androids, Baxter and Sawyer, had been heralded as the robots that would redefine manufacturing. Not a month passed after the closing than the German automation company, HAHN Group, completed its purchase of all of Rethink’s patents and trademarks, as well as Rethink’s Intera 5 software platform. Baxter and Sawyer probably haven’t yet been tossed into the dustbin of history.
That’s the lineup of what most impressed the engineers at EE Times. After looking at 2018’s robots that do acrobatics, walk on water, rebuild their bodies after factoring in the stones in the path, and take selfies on asteroids, and smart robot fabric that resembles Superman’s cape, you might wonder what’s next. If you’re in manufacturing, it’s probably a good idea to keep up with developments, and if you’re planning a knee replacement, check to see if your hospital has a robotic system to do the operation. They’re showing up everywhere.