5 of the best – Future robots

By 2011, we were promised, we’d all have android servants. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re closer than you think…

Robots have come a long way since we dubbed them “rubbish” back in 2003. Then, the idea of ‘bots taking over the world Skynet-style looked a long way off – they were more likely to be found fetching a beer or vacuuming the house. But it pays to be vigilant, so here we check out the latest, state-of-the-art automatons. Just to be sure they’re not getting ideas above their station…

1. Nao

aidebaran-robotics.com

Best for: Five-a-side glory

Nao is the humanoid robot of choice for the 2011 RoboCup robot football tournament, but he’s 
more than just a jock. The ’droid can recognise human emotions, mimic them, decide whether he’s 
happy or sad and even ‘learn’ new behaviour over prolonged periods of human contact, just as humans do. Nao is slated for a 2011/12 release to the general public, so pencil him in for a spot at left back next season.

2. AIST HRP-4

www.aist.go.jp

Best for: Dinner party host

Designed to help with household chores so you can settle down to Cash In The Attic, HRP-4 will start shipping to lucky Japanese universities this year. He responds to pre-programmed voice commands, tracks faces and can stand on one leg – although we’re not sure how that’d be much help around the house. Still, his fingers are so nimble he can pour drinks and wield power tools. Possibly at the same time…

3. Swarming Micro Air Vehicle

lis.epfl.ch

Best for: Help in a forest fire

Inspired by the behaviour of ants, the SMAVNET project aims to develop a swarm of robust, lightweight robots that can communicate wirelessly with each other. Using GPS, gyroscopes and a Linux controller on a simple Wi-Fi dongle, each ’bot will be given a ‘rank’ which determines its place in the hierarchy of the swarm, while algorithms will help them log the position of nearby units to avoid collisions. Potential uses include data gathering to aid post-accident rescue, and the creation of communications networks during disaster relief.

4. Robonaut2

nasa.gov

Best for: Being a space handyman

The latest NASA shuttle launch had an unusual payload in the form of Robonaut 2 (or R2 for short). R2 is the first humanoid robot to be sent into space, where its dextrous arms and hands allow it to use the same tools as the human astronauts. Future plans for Robonaut include both the further exploration of the moon and fact-finding missions to Mars. He’ll also get 
a variety of lower body attachments to allow him to move freely over rough terrain like an intergalactic Johnny Five. Best of all, you can follow and chat to him on Twitter.

5. Big dog

bostondynamics.com

Best for: Scaring people

This dynamically stable quadruped was created by Boston Dynamics and US defence agency DARPA. It’s essentially a robot pack mule capable of carrying 340lbs of cargo and traversing tricky terrain at up to 4mph. Powered by a 10hp go-kart engine, each leg has four actuators, monitored by a Pentium 4 PC that keeps things balanced. And, as you can see from this video, it's equal parts mind-blowing and terrifying.

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