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Rise of The Robots - part 1, Robot Creatures

LGC 2013 Tech Roundup


The state of the art in robotics in 2013 includes spiders, snakes and galloping horses, with movement so realistic it beginning to get seriously creepy.

Between 2004 and 2010 When I was writing those chapters of The Looking Glass Club that were set in 2035, my challenge was to envision what the future would be like in just 25 years' time. Ray Kurzweil first analysed the pace of technology and observed that it was accelerating. I used this idea to paint of vision of 2035 that was deliberately futuristic - too futuristic in the view of some - but in fact, I'm now beginning to wonder if my predicitions were ambitious enough. Many have already come true and it's only 2013.

2013 is drawing to a close and I've decided to do a round up of the state-of-the-art of the robotics, and what I've discovered, was frankly shocking - even to me as a futurist. I think this decade will come to be seen as a turning point. The androids of Science Fiction are already here, they're just not widely available.

The reason technologic progress accelerates rather than having a fixed velocity, is because each new breakthrough can be used to speed up the next generation. There's a confluence, a perfect storm of technologies coming, the beginnings of which we are already seeing. 3D printing, realistic physics modelling, and inverse kinemetics originally used in computer games is now finding its way in real-world robots, allowing them the kind of movement that's previously remained the privilege of the living.

Transcript of the video voice-over:

Let's start with robot animals. If you've read The Looking Glass Club you'll realise I have a slight obsession with spiders, although they're not robots.

In 2006 a state-of-art robot spider demoed at the Osaka Robot fair in Japan was made from mecano-like machined parts, sported six legs and although seemingly impressive, walked with an array of pre-programmed gaits which were quite stilted.

Okay, so it could walk upside-down but only on a special mesh ceiling. Commercially-available toys were less impressive, this expensive four-legged robot can do a few moves and speak but it wobbles like a baddie from Dr Who in 1980 and it's about as scary as a wind-up toy.

Fast forward three years, and the widespread availability of home electronics kits like Arduino means home-built six and eight legged spiders like these
walk more realistically, and can be controlled by your smart phone.

Wind forward just three years to today and thanks to the rapid prototyping benefits of 3D printing the incredible T8 octopod appeared. This amazing piece of engineering can be bought for under $500. It boasts extraordinarily life-like movements and has way more degrees of freedom thanks to 26 motors

Instead of following prefixed motion patterns, the spider calculates its movements in realtime using inverse kinematics which means it can move the way a real spider does. And it's remote controlled.

Speaking of Arduino, look at this gorgeous transforming hexapod built by two enthusiasts. It unfolds from a sphere, it can walk, even changing size as it does so roll itself back up into a sphere, and then move around in a rolling motion using a clever cyclic expand-and-contract motion of its sections. This has to be one of the most innovative home-baked robots to date.

But it's not all about the number of legs in the world of robots.

This incredible snake robot from HiBot is able to move using any of several ground modes, but it really starts to show off underwater. That's right, it's amphibious. This is a water snake robot.

Back to legs though, if you add legs to snakes what do you get? Lizards. And this climbing lizard robot called Rise can do what our 2006 spider only dreamt of, gripping a rough surface well enough to scale walls and even trees.

Rise is the creation of Boston Dynamics who around 2006 stunned us with their huge and terrifying robot fly - okay they called it Big Dog - it does four legs after all. This beast can run around outside with impressive agility and it can stay balance even when viciously kicked. The motor control is frighteningly animal-like. It can cope with a wide variety of terrains, including snow, and slippery ice, It can climb over rubble, or rough terrain and watch this: it can leap like an animal over a hurdle.

I wondered what Boston Dynamics had been up to in the last few years. It seems they've been focussing on strength and speed. The new LS3 is a robot war horse. Really. This is squad support system with phenomenal image processing power to work out how to navigate difficult terrain. It can carry 400 lbs of gear and enough fuel for a 20-mile mission and 24 hours. This robo-horse automatically follows its leader using computer vision, so it doesn't need a dedicated driver.

They've also built Cheetah and Wildcat - these robots specialise in speed with running gaits that can take them as fast a thirty miles an hour before their balance algorithms are defeated.

If you think this is cheating under the lab conditions of a treadmill that was just to measure the speed accurately. This animal can run outside.

Coming in Part 2: Human Robots.

© Sencillo Press and Gruff Davies 2010
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