A new generation of robots—some domestic, others military and scientific--does everything from clearing gutters to mopping floors. These devices will spy on neighbors, carry golf clubs and trot along beside Marines on four articulated legs like a pack mule.
Robotics expert Andrew Ng, director of Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Lab, tells the New York Times he sees a whole new generation of affordable, consumer-friendly robots just over the horizon. They're about to become common, he says, because the cost and size of accelerometers, gyroscopes, sensors and other robotic components has been driven down by the mass-production of these items for use in video games and smartphones.
The intelligent, first-generation robots depicted here range in price from $250 for the crab-like, six-legged "Hexy" (part technology-demonstrator, part sophisticated toy) to the $400,000, five-foot-four-inch tall PR2, which could, if you asked it, roll over to your refrigerator, open the door, and bring you a beer.
Among scientific robots, NASA's Curiosity Rover ($2.5 billion) currently is hard at work exploring Mars; while back on Earth, the U.S. military's terrifying-looking LS3 (cost not disclosed) trots along on four legs like a pack mule, accompanying soldiers over hill and dale and carrying payloads of up to 400 pounds. Here's a quick look at some robots for home, industrial and military use. Perhaps one will be on your gift list this year.
|Looj gutter cleaner|
Maker iRobot describes the Looj as being the safe solution to clogged gutters, since it saves its owner the risk of toppling off a ladder and splitting open his all-too-human head. A four-stage augur spins at 500 RPM to blast away leaves, dirt and clogs, says Looj's literature. It can be controlled remotely--at distances up to 50 feet--or it can augur on autonomously, sensing and adapting to debris. ($299)
The perfect gift for the nerd on your list, Hexy is aimed at anyone wanting a low-cost, entry-level hexapod. If you have to ask what hexapods are, this isn't for you. (They're six-footed walking robots) "I love robots, but they can be a really expensive hobby—especially legged robots," writes Hexy's creator, Joseph Schlesinger, on the Kickstarter appeal he used to get Hexy off the ground. "When I tried to build a hexapod in college, everything I found was typically $1,000 to $2,000." Schlesinger told the New York Times he brought the price down in part by using free software. The crablike robot can walk, play or dance autonomously. Or an owner can, if she wants, order it around. ($250)
In much the same way that the Starship Enterprise sought out new civilizations, Roomba seeks out hairballs, dust-bunnies, dirt and the ash from Uncle Louie's cigar. According to iRobot's product literature, a "system of software and sensors allows Roomba to analyze its environment and respond with intelligent decisions in order to overcome obstacles and cover the entire floor in multiple passes." It then returns automatically to a docking station to re-charge and enjoy a well deserved rest. ($329 starting price)
|CaddyTrek golf club carrier|
Finally--a caddy with a brain. And no acne! The intelligent, self-propelled CaddyTrek by FTR Systems follows a golfer across the fairway for up to 27 holes on a single charge. As with other intelligent robotic products, CaddyTrek gives a user the option of driving it proactively (via remote control) or letting it steer itself by homing in on a signal emitted by a sender worn by the golfer. In auto mode, it tags dutifully along, keeping a respectful six paces behind its master. It can't recommend the mashie over the niblick--but surely that's coming next. ($1,595)
|AR Drone 2.0|
Parrot, a company in Paris, has sold more than 250,000 of these eyes-in-the-sky to consumers, meaning that your fear of being spied on by a drone is misplaced: It's not the CIA you need to worry about. It's the Henderson kid down the block. The four-bladed "quadricopter" is flown via smartphone and comes equipped with two built-in surveillance cameras that can peer in your window and transmit in high definition what you're doing right now (but probably shouldn't be). ($299)
|PR2 by Willow Garage|
Developer Willow Garage describes PR2 as "a robotics research and development platform that lets you innovate right out of the box," meaning it's up to you to figure out what to do with it. PR2 is neither small (it stands five-foot-four) nor helpless. It rolls around the room under its own power, using its two arms to reach out for and grab whatever you might want, including a beer from the fridge. The product is not intended for consumers but for developers seeking new ways to put it to use. Possible applications suggested by Willow Garage include ones domestic (doing dishes, laundry) and others industrial (replacing human machine-tenders/ machine-operators). ($400,000)
|LS3 by Boston Dynamics and affiliated companies|
"LS3,"says Boston Dynamics' website, "is a dynamic robot designed to go anywhere soldiers and Marines go on foot." It does so by using four feet of its own, giving it the appearance of a mule or horse. It carries fuel enough to 20-mile missions and can tote up to 400 pounds of gear. It needs no operator, using its own intelligence and computer-vision to follow a human leader. A video on Boston Dynamics' website shows what happens if the LS3 ever puts a foot wrong and tips over: It rolls onto its stomach, gets its four feet under itself, and stands up—a sight at once impressive and creepy. (Cost not disclosed)
|Scooba 230 floor washer|
The Scooba scrubs tile, linoleum and sealed hardwood floors, using what the maker calls "an advanced fluid management system" to ensure that dirty water and clean water remain separate: As the robot cleans, the reservoir of clean water shrinks in size as cleaning solution is applied to the floor; the added space is used to hold the dirty water that is then sucked up. The 3-stage process starts with washing, then scrubbing (to remove stuck-on dirt), then ends with a squeegee that leaves the floor virtually dry. What iRobot calls 'Cliff sensor' technology prevents the robot from tumbling down the stairs or falling over some other precipice. ($279)
|Curiosity Rover by NASA|
Since landing on Mars over a little over a year ago, the car-sized Curiosity rover has sent back to Earth some 23,000 images and driven 1,696 feet as it explores the planet's surface. Researchers intend to use 10 scientific instruments onboard it to determine whether Gale Crater (where Curiosity landed) ever had environmental conditions favorable to life. ($2.5 billion)