This Week In Bots: Some Pop, Some Lock, Some Move Robotic

Robots dancing, robots running, robots snaking, robot actors acting out, and robots…controlling humans. Scared? Don’t be!



Robot Snake

Tintanoboa was a real snake, a prehistoric serpent of biblical proportions–it was over 50 feet long and some of them could weigh over a ton. Thankfully he’s long extinct, but to demonstrate the scale and scariness of the beast, artist group eatArt from Vancouver are building a robot version.

Yes, it really is that big–and eventually destined to have a saddle for a brave rider. Now, I’m stumped as to what’s scarier: That a 50-foot snake once existed, or it only costs about $10,000 for amateur roboticists to put together a huge hydraulic robotic replica. Nobody show this to DARPA.

Robot Ostrich


MIT and DARPA are collaborating on buiding a robotic ostrich. Before you laugh too hard, imagining this bot sticking its metal head in the sand in scary conflict situations, remember one odd fact about the real flesh and blood ostrich: At top speed it can sprint across uneven ground at 60 miles an hour–freeway speed. It’s the fastest land bird. So a robotic runner could have numerous applications in military situations, accessing tricky locations where flying drones couldn’t reach with a load of ammunition or medical gear (much more swiflty than BigDog).

FastRunner will have a top speed of over 20 miles an hour, and it’s packed with innovations–including a very novel leg structure that needs fewer actuators than you may think.

Robot Sailors

Liquid Robotics’ Wave Glider sailing robots have been around for a while, including helping efforts to track the 2010 Gulf oil spill. But this week four of the diminutive auto-sailors have set off on what’s hoped will be a Guinness World Record-breaking journey: From San Francisco across the Pacific to Australia and Japan without fuel, which may be the longest journey by a robot across the face of our planet.


It’s no empty act, though, as the Wave Gliders are tricked out with sensors that should deliver some unique data to oceanographers and climate scientists the world over.

Robot Actor

As the guys at Plastic Pals found out, sometimes it’s already tricky to tell the difference between a fake humanoid robot and a real one because technology has advanced so far, so fast recently.

The reasons behind the creation of a new robot called ROBO-G, introduced at the recent IREX 2011 International Robot Exhbition in Japan, are tied to the similarities between man and machine: ROBO-G is a character from an upcoming comedy movie where engineers fake a humanoid robot, by dressing an old guy in a suit, to impress their boss and customers.


Robot Graffiti Artist

Hey, if robots are taking over making our cars and vacuuming our floors, shouldn’t they be allowed to break the rules too? 


So Kanno and Takahiro Yamaguchi have made the Senseless Drawing robot that acts on its random programming to produce artworks of many-colored graffiti. More artful than many a human-created tag I’ve spotted…

Robot Gardener

Fans of the movie Silent Running will love this (and if you haven’t seen that classic, please do): Robot gardeners, designed to do the otherwise back-breaking task of shifting heavy plant pots around in garderning stores, have been built by startup Harvest Automation.

They’re in beta test in numerous nurseries across the U.S., and they’re pretty simple–they’re designed to do one task well, which is to move planter pots from one location to another in a regular grid pattern, grasping each one with a simple but powerful gripper and working out where it is right now, and where it has to go with a bunch of sensors. As a result they’re not overly expensive (between $25,000 and $50,000–which sounds expensive until you realize they can easily replace a couple of laborers’ wages).


Robot Human Puppet

Robots and humans working in collaboration sounds ideal right? A different scenario to many a scary movie. Scientists at French robotics lab LIRMM have taken this idea to what may be one of its ultimate levels recently, and have designed a robot that can control the movements of a human arm by firing electrodes to stimulate the person’s muscles.

Not as freaky as it seems, the goal is to help people recuperate after injuries or surgery–possibly even paralysis–and the robot-human collaboration could be a powerful trick to faster recovery that also frees up expensive nursing and physiotherapy staff to help more people.  

Robot Dancer


Everyone who’s a fan of robots knows about Keepon, the deceptively complex research and educational robot who can bust some fabulous moves when he hears a funky tune. A British firm has worked with the original science team to produce a much simpler and cheaper version (£40, or $63, versus tens of thousands of dollars). And Keepon’s proven so attractive as a holiday gift that the suppliers have already sold out.

Best of all, some of the profits from Keepon sales are going to help charities looking at how robots may help educate autistic children.

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. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)