"The Skynet missile defense system goes online April 19th 2011, declares war on mankind, and triggers a nuclear apocalypse two days later." So says James Cameron in the Terminator story, anyway. Bearing this in mind, here's a sample of the cutting edge tech of our real robot overlords. You may be forgiven for thinking we have nothing to fear. But wait 'til the last one...
For the Brewers-Phillies game on Science Day yesterday, University of Pennsylvania engineers created the Philliebot—a one-armed, three-legged robot pitcher that could toss a ball at up to 40 miles an hour. Sounds awesome, and the arm-powered machine seems a little more human than the more usual spinning-tire artificial pitcher. Tragically, Philliebot didn't quite deliver on its promises.
Easter egg painter
Painting Easter eggs is such a chore, don'tcha think? Hence the invention of the Egg Bot, by Eastern Eggs, which tattoos wooden eggs with intricate designs that easily surpass your own colorful hen's-egg daubings. It's all for a good cause, too—you can command your own egg to be crafted, watch its creation via webcam, and then donate money to the Red Cross cause to help tsunami relief work.
Rubik's Cube solved by an android
Willow Garage's PR2 robot is one of the few real androids that can be bought today—albeit for research purposes in academic institutions. He's an impressive machine, but PR2 is clunky, chunky, and far from the dextrous machines we're used to seeing in the movies. But is he totally devoid of fine manipulation skills and brain power? Check out this clip from engineers at the University of Ulster—PR2 is smart enough to solve a Rubik's Cube.
Packbots probe Japan's reactors
It's no nuclear holocaust, but the ongoing drama at the crippled nuclear powerstations in Fukushima, Japan, is captivating the world and worrying many in Japan. Recently two Packbots were sent in to the plant, accessing zones that hadn't been entered since the disaster to try to assess the extent of radiological pollution. The repurposed war droids found dangerously high levels—demonstrating their usefulness in one swoop, as no human would safely be able to gather this data.
Robots dance, too
The Sarcos research 'bot is an unusual hydraulic-powered full-body android that dynamically balances itself in a very similar way to how humans do. As part of his research into this balancing process, CMU's Ben Stephens taught his Sarcos to dance—using motion captured from a real dancing human—to demonstrate how the robot can make complex moves that upset its center of gravity, and still not fall over.
China's dog 'bot
Remember BigDog—the four-legged, self-balancing, autonomous-navigating, gas-engine-powered monster designed to aid soldiers in the field? Check out FROG—the Four-legged Robot for Optimum Gait. It's a research project from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It's a far, far cry from BigDog's amazing all-terrain skills, but the robot can manage different styles of walking, climb over low objects, and is intended to be the skeleton of a future robotic triceratops.
The real Terminator, Petman
We saw Boston Dynamics' Petman prototype some while ago, behaving merely as a pair of self-balancing legs that were designed to emulate real human walking gait so they could act as a repeating "wearing-out" test bed for equipment designed for people. Check these lovely legs out:
And then look at this image. It's what BD now plans to turn Petman into—a full humanoid robot. Given BD's military-research ties, and cash injections from DARPA, it's impossible to ignore how its plans to skin the metallic Petman droid in a plastic casing remind us of the famous rubber-clad "skinjobs" from James Cameron's imagination. Judgment Day, anyone?