For maximizing doctor-patient face-time. Drawing on years of experience with its self-navigating Roomba vacuums, last year iRobot unveiled RP-VITA, a roving robotic communications portal that’s already making the rounds at various hospitals. The bot, which can be controlled remotely with a tablet, uses sensors to find its way to a given patient, and onboard cameras and displays allow for face-to-face interaction with doctors. While iRobot is already a powerhouse in the home and on the battlefield, its first medical automaton should be a shot in the arm for healthcare robotics.
For building an army of throwable spybots. Last year, French commandos tossed the Recon Scout XT into an armed standoff with a spree-killer. The stealthy, 1.2-pound barbell-shaped microbot confirmed his location, and the suspect was killed, without any other casualties. Since then, Recon Robotics has sold another 1,000 bots to the U.S. Army, while also introducing the next generation of dirt-simple, indispensable scouts, the Throwbot XT, which can transmit audio as well as infrared video.
For taking robot cars to Vegas. When Google announced in 2010 that its secret fleet of robotic Priuses had logged 1,000 miles alongside unsuspecting humans, the world was stunned. And in the past year, the search giant hasn’t eased off the gas, surpassing 300,000 in total robot mileage and successfully lobbying California to become the second state to allow autonomous vehicles on its roads. (Google’s first victory was Nevada, which has since become a statewide testing ground for machine drivers and projects from the likes of Audi and Volkswagen.)
For turning robots into brain surgeons. While global interest in surgical robots has grabbed headlines and reeled in staggering profits for companies like Intuitive Surgical, Israel-based Mazor Robotics has been quietly pushing the technology into the uncharted territory of neurosurgery. The company has pioneered the use of 3D imaging to immediately confirm spinal surgery results, and its Renaissance system, which in January had its 20th hospital installation in the United States, is the first to secure FDA approval for brain procedures.
For getting to the space station, and back, with a robot spacecraft. SpaceX made history when its Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station, a milestone for the burgeoning commercial space industry. Less talked about, though, was its robotic triumph: The Dragon is an autonomous vehicle, and the company plans to keep it largely self-piloted, even if, in the coming years, it’s approved to ferry passengers to and from the station.
For flying robot pilots through unfriendly skies. Like other defense contractors, Lockheed Martin develops its share of death-dealing hardware. But the K-MAX unmanned (and unarmed) chopper, developed jointly with the Kaman Corporation, has distinguished itself in more peaceful duties, too, delivering more than 2 million pounds of food, gear, and other supplies to U.S. Marines in Afghanistan since its deployment in late 2011. It will continue to keep human pilots out of the crosshairs, as the DoD has extended its deployment through March, with an option to continue through September.
For harnessing machines to harness the power of the sun. With the upfront costs of solar power slowing its widespread adoption, PV-Kraftwerker’s Momo robot is a glimpse of brighter days ahead: when robots will install entire solar fields with little to no human assistance. For now, Momo’s skills are limited—it merely carries and positions the heavier components—but the company has been hired to create a more self-sufficient version that would set up panels in the irradiated surroundings of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant.
For making humanoid robots with a purpose. While Honda’s Asimo still makes the occasional public appearance, dancing and bowing for our amusement, the anthropomorphic robots at Boston Dynamics are busting their shiny asses. The treadmill-running, push-up-pumping PETMAN, originally built to test protective military gear, has become the humanoid platform for the Pentagon’s most ambitious robotics challenge yet, which aims to create disaster-response bots that can drive cars, use hand-tools, and otherwise rescue our lesser species.
For bringing wearable robots to market. The Ekso Bionics exoskeleton is life-changing technology: a pair of mechanical legs that gauge the wearer’s intentions and move entirely under their own power, with none of the device’s 45 pounds borne by the user. But keep the Iron Man fantasies in check—this system assists, rather than augments, providing a robotic, bipedal alternative to wheelchairs. Its latest version, which hit the market last year, includes new walking modes for improved rehabilition and a wireless usage monitor.
For proving that bot-driven forklifts aren't as scary as they sound. Amazon’s $775 million acquisition of Kiva Systems last year signaled an unprecedented shift toward the fully automated distribution center. But in contrast to Kiva, which makes robotic warehouses that are completely retrofitted with machine swarms, Seegrid takes existing industrial trucks—from pallet-movers to forklifts—equips them with proprietary sensors and hardware, and unleashes them as robotic heavy-lifters in existing warehouses, where they’re smart enough to maneuver around their more fragile colleagues.[Robot Hand: LeArchitectovia Shutterstock]