Space Bots & Android Waste Collectors: What’s Ahead for Robotics

January 03, 2016
John Quinn

It was a good year to be a robot.

In 2015, researchers in Korea unveiled a robotic exoskeleton that users can control with their minds, a four-legged bot in China set a new world record by walking 83.28 miles (134.03 km) without stopping and 3D-printing robots in Amsterdam started work on a new steel footbridge.

But these smart machines are capable of so much more. Researchers around the world are now designing and building bots that will complete more noteworthy tasks in 2016 and beyond. From exploring other planets to fighting fires at sea, here are a few skills that bots could pick up in the new year.

Travel to Mars

Space robots already exist. Robotic arms and hands on the outside of the International Space Station (ISS) assist astronauts during spacewalks, hoist equipment and perform other duties. A humanoid robot named Robonaut 2 also helps out around the orbiting laboratory, doing simple and sometimes dangerous tasks so that human astronauts can focus on other things. And then there are the Mars rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, which serve as rolling robotic laboratories, exploring the surface of the Red Planet, collecting samples and relaying data back to Earth.

But NASA has plans to send a different kind of robot to Mars in the not-so-distant future. The space agency’s Valkyrie robot, or R5, is an updated Robonaut that was originally built to perform search and rescue operations as part of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Robotics Challenge. But NASA’s bot did not fair very well in the competition, never qualifying for the last round, which was held in June 2015. Yet the machine’s makers still think there’s hope for the humanoid robot.

NASA recently asked two universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Northeastern University in Boston, to work on further development of the R5 robot. Researchers at these institutions will receive funding and support from the space agency to create software that will make the bot more useful in space. The ultimate goal of this new Space Robotics Challenge is to develop a humanoid bot that could help humans explore Mars, NASA said.

Trash collecting

Sure, future robots could be more useful in space, but there also a few tasks these machines could perform to make them indispensable right here on Earth. For example, they could haul garbage. Researchers in Sweden and the United States are working on the development of such trash-chucking robots.

Spearheaded by Swedish automaker Volvo, the project is known as Robot-based Autonomous Refuse handling, or ROAR, and the goal is to develop remote-controlled bots that could be deployed from a garbage truck to the curb outside your home. The bots will lift up heavy refuse bins, empty the trash into the garbage truck and then roll along to the next house to do the same, sparing sanitation workers from any heavy lifting.

Swedish waste-management company Renova is also developing a garbage truck that could accommodate the automated system needed to control the bots and, presumably, carry the helpful machines around when they’re not hauling trash. The project is expected to be ready for testing by June 2016.

To read the rest of this article, published in Live Science, please click here.