Robots, once the stuff of science fiction, are becoming part of our everyday lives. If you think about it, you can probably name a few famous ones popularized by television and the movies. There is the blinky little R2-D2 from Star Wars and Rosie the efficient, sometimes bossy, household robot employed by the space-aged cartoon Jetsons. In some films scary robots replicate themselves an take over the world, and really creepy ones appear life-like on the outside but are wired for evil on the inside.
Just as the word robot assimilated into 20th century vocabulary, the terms android, humanoid and cyborg are now becoming part of our language today. Improved technology, and man's constant quest to build machines in his image, have led the robot evolution. While robots, humanoids and cyborgs share similar features, they are not interchangeable. Before we talk about the coolest robots ever, let's distinguish between these three types of non-human beings.
- Robots are machines programmed to follow a specific set of instructions.
- Humanoids are robots structurally designed to look and behave like humans. Androids are refined versions of humanoids intended to look as much like a person as humanly as possible
- Cyborgs are organisms with both natural/biological and mechanical/robot parts. What was once limited to science fiction, cyborgs are now a reality as people are outfitted with prosthetic limbs, pacemakers and cochlear implants.
Do you see a robot in your future?
10. Digesting Duck
If it eats like a duck, poops like a duck, and flaps its wings like a duck…it must be a duck, right? Not if it was Jacques de Vaucanson's digesting duck, which was actually a robot.
The year was 1739 and the world was fascinated with automation. To satisfy the craze for lifelike mechanical objects, Vaucanson built his first automaton, a life-size flute player that could perform 12 pieces. But it is the Frenchman's digesting duck that gained him the greatest fame.
From top to bottom, Vaucanson's duck did what ducks do after eating and drinking. Although the complete cycle of digestion performed by the duck was an illusion, as grain was collected in one container in its belly and fake excrement was pushed out of another chamber, the construction of this early robot had greater ramifications.
The mechanisms that enabled the duck to flap its wings and consume food and drink required Vaucanson to first engineer a precision lathe to cut the pieces used to construct the creature. The duck's gold-plated copper exterior and the box on which it stood hid more than 1,000 moving parts driven by a weight. Additionally, because the duck's digestive system mimicked an actual system, Vaucanson created what is now considered the first rubber hose, the perfect thing for the job.
Vaucanson's duck made history, but it's the effort that went into making it that had the greatest impact. The engineering of the creature and its workings eventually lead the inventor to revolutionize the weaving industry through automated looms.
9. Maillardet's Automaton
Imagine the intricate design and fine-tuning that went into creating a mechanical doll that could write and draw complex pictures. Automata, complex man-made machines were all the rage in the early 1800s, especially those that could perform human tasks.
On display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia is one such machine built by a Swiss mechanic and clock maker named Henri Maillardet. His recently restored and preserved automaton, is believed to have the greatest capability of any machine produced at the time. Despite the doll's ability to pen poetry in both French and English, and draw detailed pictures, the "bilingual artist" is limited in its ability.
The doll, sits atop a large chest, which contains its "memory" or ability to write and draw. When turned, cranks on the side of the box set the mechanism in motion. Pen-in-hand, the doll bends forward over the paper. At the same time, a series of brass disks begin to shift up and down and side to side as the steel "fingers" within the machine pass along a course. As the piece of paper shifts below the tip of the pen, the doll appears to produce one of three poems or four pictures [source: The Franklin Institute]. The imitation of life that amazed people more than 200 years ago continues to fascinate people today.
8. Elektro and his pal Sparko
There was a time when, if you wanted to show off a new product, you took it to the World's Fair. Thousands of people would descend on the event to see first-hand the latest and greatest inventions and innovations.
At the 1939 New York World's Fair people were thrilled to meet Elektro, Westinghouse's giant robot that stood more than 7 feet tall (2.1 m). Over two summers, Electro entertained audiences by answering questions, walking across the stage and even smoking.
The mechanical man of steel and aluminum was programmed to respond to two-word commands, spoken robotically, by a human into telephone handset. The words vibrated within Elektro, and were converted to electrical impulses, which operated the 11 motors controlling his ability to speak some 700 words, walk, and move his arms and fingers. A small motor controlling bellows allowed him to smoke, a habit that was very fashionable at the time.
A human companion or operator could stop Elektro's motion with a one-word command, and reset all the relays, by speaking four words into the microphone. Elektro's dog, Sparko, operated similarly and had the ability to bark, beg and wag his tail on command.
While robots have become more sophisticated over the years, for many people, their idea of what a robot looks and sounds like can be traced back to Elektro's performance at the World's Fair.
Most robots developed over the last century have been created for practical purposes. They make some jobs easier and often do the jobs humans don't want to or can't. Such was the case with the creation of Unimate, a 4,000 pound (1,800 kg) arm that took a job at a General Motors plant in 1961.
The two inventors who conceived Unimate were intrigued by science fiction stories and became determined to build a simple but effective working robot.
During his assembly-line shift, the obedient Unimate followed the commands of his human boss, lifting heated die-castings from machines and welding them to auto bodies. Soon the versatile arm was performing other tasks and the family of industrial robots grew. Their agility, speed, and ability to lift up to 500 pounds spawned changes in manufacturing beyond the automobile industry.
In 1978, Unimation, the parent company of Unimate, debuted PUMA, (Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly), which is the standard of robotic equipment in manufacturing today. While they have taken on many unwanted human jobs, robots who work in manufacturing still require humans to program their movements.
During a visit to a Disneyland you'd expect to find yourself talking with a human-size mouse, but what you may not expect, while dining in one of the fancier restaurants, is to find a robotic rat squeaking at you from a plate of cheese. Remy, the rat-turned-chef from the animated movie Ratatouille, may be the smallest yet most sophisticated Audio-Animatronic character in the Disney collection.
Audio-Animatronics were first introduced by Walt Disney in 1963 in the form of birds in Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room. The technology involved sending signals to solenoid coils, which produced action.
The following year, at the New York World's Fair, Disney debuted an animated figure of Abraham Lincoln that took the stage and captivated the audience with its 57 moves. He became the precursor to the Lincoln figure at the Disneyland attraction, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which began operation in 1965 [source: Disney Parks].
Today's show features an updated android Abe outfitted with the most sophisticated technology. The 16th president is more life-like than ever, as his head and face alone have 20 functions enabling him to be more expressive and less robotic as he delivers his famous speeches.
Remy and Lincoln aren't the only Audio-Animatronic figures at the Disney parks, but they are among the most complex.
5. Da Vinci Surgical System
When scheduled for minimally invasive surgery, whom would you want for the job? A doctor with steady hands, who has a clear picture of the site, correct? Would you believe a robot could be the ideal candidate?
Since it was introduced in 1999, the da Vinci Surgical System and its EndoWrist technology have changed the face of operating rooms around the world. Rather than standing over the patient, struggling to manipulate their instruments around organs, surgeons now sit at a comfortable console, controlling four robotic arms outfitted with micro-instruments, which replicate the doctor's hands.
Peering into a three dimensional stereo viewer, the surgeon becomes immersed in the operation, which is magnified and in high definition. EndoWrist instruments at the end of the arms allow for more maneuverability and less tremor. Human error is virtually non-existent. Intuitive technology allows the surgeon to use the same skills learned for traditional open surgery, yet with more precision.
Used most often in minimally invasive procedures such as cancer surgery, hysterectomy, and appendectomy, patients undergoing complex operations experience less blood loss, quicker recovery, little scarring and return to normal activities sooner [source: Intuitive Surgical].
4. Spirit and Opportunity
When NASA sent the space rovers Spirit and Opportunity to Mars in the summer of 2003, their mission was to explore two sides of the red planet for signs of past water activity and possible life. It was expected that each robot would survive for about 90 days and cover a distance of about one kilometer (0.6 mi.). More than six years (that's 3.2 Martian years) and 11 miles (18km) later, the two intrepid robots have gone above and beyond the call of duty [source: Thompson].
The rovers, decked out in all the finest geologic exploration equipment, were built to study the composition of the rocks and soil. Their robotic arms behave like a geologist examining the rocks with a magnifying glass; and cameras mounted on the rover's masts send images of the terrain to scientists on earth.
Scientists on the ground give the robots the space they need to do their job. They begin each day giving the robots a set of instructions, and at the end of the day receive a report on how they did. Unless there is an emergency, the bosses back on Earth are hands-off.
As of January 2010, Spirit and Opportunity had sent more than 132,000 images home many of them convincing NASA scientists that there once was water on the surface of Mars. Although Spirit became stuck in a sand trap in May 2010, its spinning wheels have churned up sand and dirt revealing more about the planet's surface. Opportunity, meanwhile, has discovered three meteorites and is rolling resolutely toward its next destination, a giant crater.
Who hasn't wished for a robot to do their chores without being asked? Washers and dryers are great, but wouldn't it be perfect if they could fold your clothes too? Vacuum cleaners really get the job done, but you have to operate them and it's hard to get under the sofa.
The desire for a vacuuming robot has resulted in Roomba, one in a series of housecleaning robots from iRobot. Founded in 1990 by a group of self-described "geeks" from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), iRobot not only invented Roomba, they have also developed sister products that scrub floors and clean gutters and pools.
Affordably priced from $200 to $500, Roomba is doing the dirty work in 2 million homes worldwide. The plate-sized appliance cleans regularly and frequently, navigating across floors avoiding furniture, stairs, cords and carpet tassels. It automatically adjusts from carpet to hardwood floors, detects and goes over dirtier areas, can move from room to room, and when it is finished or low on battery, returns to the docking station to recharge [source: iRobot].
The makers of Roomba have taken the technology beyond house cleaning. Robots Ariel and Fetch can detect and dismantle land-mines. Urbie, who climbs steps, is used in urban combat, and iRobot's 510 PackBot not only searches for bombs but also disposes of them [source: iRobot]. Andfor those inventors looking to create their own robot, iRobot offers Create, a programmable mobile robot.
2. T-52 ENRYU
Standing 11 feet (3.3 meters) tall, with controls nestled in its belly, Japan's T-52 Enryu is a monster of a robot. But, unlike creatures of science fiction, this Japanese creation is intended for good, not evil.
Unveiled in 2004, Enryu, meaning "rescue dragon," looks like a Transformer and was built to assist in rescue efforts after such disasters as earthquakes and avalanches. With a base that resembles a bulldozer, Enryu weighs 6 tons (5.4 metric tons) and has two robotic arms that can each lift 1,100 pounds (500 kg).
Its crab-like claws are set 33 feet (10 meters) apart, enabling it to grasp and hoist heavy objects including steel girders, slabs of cement and automobiles. Depending on the situation, the operator, outfitted in an exoskeleton, can control the dragon either remotely or from within the belly of the beast.
A newer, smaller version of Enryu, the T-53, reported for duty in 2007 after an earthquake rocked Niigata, Japan. The street-legal, younger model is both more practical and more dexterous, but its arms can only lift a combined 440 pounds (200 kg) [source: Murph].
Developers of the T-53 see its application extending to construction work and waste disposal in addition to rescue operations.
It looks like an astronaut in outer space, moves like a human with the capability to run, and was developed to help people in need. It is ASIMO, a humanoid robot whose name stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Technology.
Developed by Honda Motor Co., best known for its cars and motorcycles, ASIMO is the personification of the company's capabilities in advanced robotics. Honda began creating a humanoid robot in 1986. Ten years later, after much research, trial and error, they introduced P2, the world's first two-legged or bipedal humanoid. Its sibling, P3, came along a year later and gained fame as the first completely independent walking robot.
In 2000, ASIMO arrived. Standing 4 feet 3 inches (130 centimeters) tall and weighing 119 pounds (54 kilograms), it is significantly smaller than its predecessors. Its compact stature puts ASIMO at eye level with people confined to a bed or wheelchair and makes it easier to navigate and help out around the house.
Powered by an ion battery and controlled by a wireless computer, its movements can be directed by an operator or with voice commands. ASIMO has cameras for "eyes" and its flexibility allows it perform tasks with fluid movements, unlike the stilted movements of older robots.
ASIMO is now performing in his own theater at Disneyland. Robotics has come a long way from the digesting duck and the birds of Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room. [source: Asimo].
Lots More Information
- Coolest Robots Quiz
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- Apollo Mission Pictures
- Name the Price: Space Exploration Quiz
- The Ultimate Inventor Quiz
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