This Week In Bots: Space Droids, Dog Droids, Chatting Droids, And Farming Droids

Fear not the robocalypse–recent developments in robotics are showing how advanced robots will help everyone from astronauts to farmers to doctors do their jobs more easily.


Do Astronauts Dream of Electric DEXTREs?

Potentially evoking creepy memories of external circuit failures from the film 2001, an important circuit breaker aboard the ISS recently popped and had to be replaced. The thing is, it sits in an electronics sled outside the ISS, and would’ve necessitated an astronaut to perform a spacewalk to fix it–but this time the Canadian-made DEXTRE performed the task entirely by remote control, with mission controllers runnning the operation from Houston while the astronauts aboard the station slept.

DEXTRE performed the swap-out of the broken component flawlessly, and has proved its worth for a potentially disastrous upcoming situation where the ISS may become unmanned for a short period following the failure of a Russian supply rocket.

Robot Versus Rugby’s All Blacks


Some of rugby’s most powerful players are New Zealand’s All Blacks, and now the kicking leg of a former player is going to be pitted against three developmental robotic legs being designed by local universities. The competition will happen as part of the Rugby World Cup, and the aim is to kick a goal from a variety of different positions in an attempt to beat the accuracy of a human player.

It’s a fun promotional vehicle, but it has an important message: Robot limbs are getting more powerful and more sophisticated.

BigDog’s Competition

PIGORASS is a less excitingly named robot that’s in roughly the same class of device as Boston Dynamics’ terrifying BigDog–a powered quadruped. PIGORASS is being developed by a team at the University of Tokyo, and he’s fascinating for two reasons. He’s pneumatically powered, rather than relying on electric servos, and has an artificial skeleton that’s designed with bio-mimicing principles–so it has tendons and passive springs, with a potential to be very strong. And unlike other robots where the movement commands are rigidly defined and digitally controlled, the circuitry also uses biologial designs, and its “muscular” control happens in a similar way to how your nerves work–making the robot gallop or jump. Because it’s experimental, the motion isn’t yet refined, but ultimately such control systems may let robots manuever tricky terrain more successfully.


Chatbot Date

Artificially intelligent chatty robots are a sci-fi staple, and have been a research program dating back beyond the famous ELIZA…but perhaps never before have two chatrobots been set up on a date. As a demonstration of their technology, Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab set up two Cleverbots in face-to-face communication, and let them talk it out.

Fun. But remember many automated phone services may soon be using this sort of tech as a first response before sending you on to a real person.

Robot Farmer Is a Wii Fan


Farming is increasily mechanized, lifting the burden from farmer’s shoulders, but it’s still a very hands-on task–someone needs to be seated in the cab of all those huge bits of machinery. Which is something the University of Southern Denmark is trying to help sort out–its SUFFER’11 robot is a robotic, remote-controlled farming tool that may be the biggest Wii-controled drone yet. It’s a mini tractor, with both remote operation and a degree of intelligence. Various tools can be swapped in and out of its chassis, letting it do everything from pick crops to spray pesticides. It also has a plowing tool, and is smart enough to detect rows and continue to plow furrows in a logical manner. Check out a video of it in action at this link.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise.