For building the bots that live among us. iRobot could sit on its laurels and continue to rake in military paychecks, including a $30 million U.S. Army defense contract last year. Instead, the empire that PackBot and Roomba built is hurtling forward. From collaborating with Yale researchers on an ultradextrous robotic hand (able to grasp a pin) at a fraction of the cost of existing manipulators, to unveiling a telepresence bot that marries Cisco Systems' videoconferencing tech with iRobot's self-guided navigation, the Massachusetts company isn't just meeting demand but creating it: Revenue climbed by roughly $50 million in 2013 to nearly $500 million. Read more >>
For building and investing in robots that will truly change the world. Google's driverless autonomous cars have logged 500,000 miles to date—without incident. Last year, it acquired Boston Dynamics, maker of the walking, running, and jumping robots, as well as Schaft, a Tokyo-based startup that uses liquid-cooled electronic motors to power five-foot-tall humanoid automatons. Add to that its recent acquisition of smart appliance maker Nest, and Google has proven it is more poised than any other company to advance the art of intelligent machines. Read more >>
For bringing prosthetics into the mobile age. The i-limb ultra revolution isn't the only breathtakingly complex bionic hand. It is, however, the first to be controlled with an app. Touch Bionics' latest model can be programmed via an included iPod Touch—allowing wearers to configure their own grip patterns and activation triggers, and to recalibrate without a prosthetics expert. Advanced prosthetics are still sports-car expensive (this one runs $100,000), but they no longer require a roboticist to maintain.
For teaching drones to land—and avoid landing—on aircraft carriers. Northrop Grumman's X-47B robot plane made history last May as the first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launched by catapult from a carrier. Then it upped the ante, making an arrested carrier landing in July. Subsequent aborted landings were widely criticized, missing the point: Having detected technical issues, the largely autonomous prototype for a future pilotless fighter decided to land elsewhere. Avoiding a fiery carrier crash might be the best example yet of machine intelligence.
For rethinking menial labor. When Rethink Robotics first unveiled Baxter in 2012, its eerily humanoid robot, it held much promise. The two-armed, touch-screen-faced bot could learn repetitive tasks quickly and work alongside humans with no risk of injuring them—a remarkably low-cost way of automating a wide range of assembly tasks. But Rethink delivered again in 2013, significantly upgrading Baxter's software and allowing academic customers to create their own applications, turning the hundreds of models sold so far into even better unpaid workers.
For using bots to target more forms of cancer, in more patients. Accuray's CyberKnife System first opened fire on tumors in 2001, using robotic accuracy to hit unhealthy tissue with narrow beams of radiation, instead of bathing whole swaths of the subject's body. More than 100,000 patients later, the new CyberKnife M6 Series, deployed last year, is an even better shot: It utilizes shaped beams that conform to the specific contours of a tumor. That means less collateral radiation for surrounding tissue—and treatments for the previously untreatable.
For using the sun and the sea to power a fleet of ocean observers. Liquid Robotics had already cornered the market it essentially invented: self-steering robots that patrol the seas, monitoring everything from vessel traffic to marine life. The Wave Glider SV3, launched last year, pushes the state of the art in self-guided sensors further. It's the first oceangoing bot to propel itself using both solar cells and wave energy, with an onboard electric motor that can fight through currents and weather conditions, and an operational range in the tens of thousands of miles.
For bringing hands-free mowing, and motoring, one step closer to reality. Bosch delivered the smartest, most-efficient robomower to date last year. As scarce as automated mowing is in the United States, it's a $170 million (and growing) business in Europe, and Bosch's Indego model is the most advanced. It maps the lawn, cuts in preplanned parallel lines, and picks up where it left off after recharging. The German firm also released autonomous cars onto the Autobahn in an attempt to make Google's robocar tests in Nevada look like quaint Sunday drives.
For streamlining solar power with robots and monorails. Instead of fully motorizing individual solar panels to constantly face the sun, the SolBot system from QBotix mounts them on a miniature monorail track, where a robot can slide along, repositioning them throughout the day. This uses fewer motors and soaks up more sun, costing as much as a single-axis tracking system while delivering as much energy as a dual-axis one. After setting up five active installations in 2013, the California startup unveiled the larger-scale SolBot R-225, each one capable of optimizing 340 kilowatts worth of panels.
For hurling palm-launched drones into the line of fire. Is a tiny, toylike unarmed UAV that fits in your hand worth $31 million? Britain's Ministry of Defence certainly believed so when it ordered 160 of Prox Dynamics' Black Hornet nanocopters and deployed the half-ounce drones to Afghanistan in 2012. Now infantry units use the Black Hornet for close-quarters scouting and automated surveillance. The Norwegian bot-maker recently scored a $2.5 million contract to develop a new Black Hornet line for the U.S. Army.