Technically, the Mars Science Laboratory rover shouldn’t make this list because it isn’t yet in use. But hey, when you cost upwards of $2.3 billion and can’t really be put into use until you get to a planet millions of miles away, you deserve special treatment. At nine feet in length and weighing almost a ton, the MSL rover is by far the largest rover to date, and will carry far more scientific tools, scanners, cameras, detectors, and various instrumentation than any prior ‘bots. It’ll zip along at ninety-eight feet per hour, bound over obstacles of up to thirty inches in height, and continue to function for nearly two years as it digs deep into the nature and makeup of the planet and sets the stage for possible future human exploration.
But does it play MP3s?
If you’ve ever been to a nursing home, and in particular one that houses people afflicted with mentally debilitative diseases, you’ll know they’re not particularly uplifting places. The morale is generally low, and interpersonal communications even lower. Enter Paro, a handmade, interactive “Mental Commitment Robot” developed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. Mimicking the physical characteristics of a baby harp seal, Paro doesn’t look far removed from a plush toy. But inside, Paro is a high-tech marvel featuring sensors for light, touch, temperature, and posture, as well as microphones throughout its body and enough computing power to pull off an impressive number of authentic, autonomous movements and behaviors. Paro becomes drowsy in the evening and sleepy at night, “learns” any new name that is given it, and expresses emotion by blinking its eyes or moving its head and legs. Paro’s sensors recognize when it’s being stroked versus being hit, and will adapt accordingly to user preferences.
Paro has already proven it can garner positive reactions from patients who are normally lost within their own minds, and for that its developers must be commended.
To the Tokyo Fire Department, robots are nothing new. For more than a decade, the TFD has made good use of remote-controlled firefighting bots to battle blazes in ways humans cannot – for example, with nozzles that are ten times more powerful than the typical variety. But it seems that blasting flames was just a prelude. Looking like a giant dustpan with arms, the latest model, dubbed Robokiyu (RoboCue), scoops victims of bomb blasts, riots, earthquakes, Godzilla rampages, and other disasters off the ground and into its mechanical “mouth,” where they lay until Robokiyu transports them to safety. Featuring infrared cameras, oxygen canisters, and ultrasonic people-finding sensors, the unit is clearly a state-of-the-art rescuer.
For decades now, people have feared the potential loss of their jobs to robots, and rightfully so. We question whether CCS Robotics’ SpeciMinder is therefore rightfully feared, or if it merely handles some of the more mundane tasks of a healthcare professional’s day, freeing him or her to handle more humanistic duties. Looking a bit like a fancy wastebasket, the SpeciMinder zips about a healthcare lab, delivering samples and specimens to their appropriate destinations. It’s no mere drone either – the unit avoids obstacles, re-plans routes, verbally announces its intentions, and returns automatically to its charging dock when it’s done. What more could you ask from a slave bot?
iRobot is perhaps best known for cutesy-but-practical consumer products, such as the Roomba vacuum drone. But the company is also involved in areas considerably more “thought-provoking,” such as the government and the military. Here, robots sporting ominous monikers such as Negotiator, Ranger, and Warrior do more than clean the carpets.
The Warrior, a squat, fortified little beast fitted like a tank with caterpillar treads, was introduced several years ago and originally designed to carry payloads exceeding 150 pounds over the roughest of terrain. But there’s a permutation of the Warrior, now in the experimental stage, that might just become one of the most potent killing machines yet created. Co-developed with Australia-based Metal Storm, a defense technology company specializing in fast-firing electronic guns, this version of the Warrior can apparently blow off thousands – and theoretically millions – of bullets (or nonlethal projectiles) per minute. It’s being hailed as a crowd control solution, but when the firing apparatus is named Firestorm, we’d hate to be part of that crowd.