This Week In Bots: Snakes, Barks, Vacuums, Sex Movies, And Other Mechanical Surprises

There have been many exciting robotic developments of late. Let’s take a (slightly NSFW) look at what’s happening.


The Dog-Bark Snake Bot

You’ve probably heard of robot snakes before, useful in search-and-rescue scenarios because they can worm their way into confined spaces–perhaps in collapsed buildings–that other machines can’t match. You may also know SAR teams sometimes use sniffer dogs to help them locate victims trapped in rubble. But you’ve probably never conflated these two notions, and pictured a SAR dog that has a slave snake-bot that it can deploy and control with a bark. That’s what a project with input from Canaday’s Ryerson University and Carnegie Mellon University has come up with. They call it the Canine Assisted Robot Deployment system.

Initially designed as a simple supply-drop device, so that the sniffer dog can drop a care package near any victim it finds with a bark command, the team realized that a cleverer system would let the dog get as close as it can to a potential target, and then drop the robot at the site so that a remote human operator can then search in more cramped spaces the dog can’t reach. It may be a potent future option for rescue teams–assuming the funding can be found to develop the idea further. 

The Smell-Killer Bot


If you’ve ever ambled into a room in your house and stopped instantly struck by a powerful urge to say “what the heck is that snmell?” then some new robot technology may be ideal for you. In the same way that a Roomba cheerfully burbles around the floor of your home seeking out and sweeping up dirt and dust, new machines from Moneua and Ecovacs manuever among your chambers, sampling the air and neutralizing any unpleasant smells lingering anywhere.

Both firms demonstrated robots at the recent CES event, with Moneual’s relying on an air ingestion system and a complex sequence of active and HEPA filters to purify the air and Ecovac’s having a potent chemical system that actively tries to break down smell molecules. 

For now they’re bizarre and extravagant technology (though we can imagine they’re the sort of system that one or two high end hotels could see as a reasonable expense) but what they illustrate is something unexpected: Robots may in the near future be performing subtle and unexpected tasks to boost your quality of life, as well as keeping your floors clean.

The Self-Cleaning Cleaner Bot

Speaking of cleaner bots, one of the irritating things about floor-vacuum robots like the Roombas or similar machines from Samsung or a bunch of other makers is that though they’re smart, autonomous and able to self-charge from their bases…you as an owner still have to disassemble them frequently to empty their debris catchers. Typically these are quite small things, necessarily so because of the diminutive size of the robots and the demands of keeping weight down to preserve battery life, and if you have a large or particularly dusty home then it can be a problem. Enter what you may call the next gen of vaccum bot: The Deebot D76 and the Samsung Navibot S, both spotted at CES by the Automaton blog. These cleaner bots have the ability to work out when their bins are full, and then make their way back to their charger base–which in this case also has a mechanism for emptying the bin without you having to do anything.


Of course then you have to empty that new device’s bin yourself…but you probably won’t have to do it so frequently. This kind of tech is projected to hit store shelves inside a year or so.

The Whiskered Shrew Bot

University of Bristol scientists, in collaboration with a number of other teams, have taken inspiration for one of their latest tobot designs from what may seem an unlikely source: The Etruscan shrew. This diminutive nocturnal rodent has incredibly sensitive whiskers which it uses to help it sense its way around in the dark. Since processing touch is, in some ways, an easier computational task than trying to process machine vision to navigate (we’ve been working on that technology for decades, and it’s far from perfect) the Bristol team realized artificial whiskers with sensitve electronic roots could be ideal for aiding robot movements.

Their device relies on such sensors deployed on a small mobile robot for environmental sensing–and its not just for fun. Whisker sensors may be ideal for use in search robots or military ones because they can work in smoke-filled environments and in the dark. And since whiskers are potentially sacrificial, with the root-based sensitive electronics safely remote from the tips that actually make contact with objects, the deisign even has greater resilience than other touch-based robots.

The Footballing Bot


Forget Ronaldo–this new footballing news coming out of Portugal has greater potential for our future: Scientists in Guimaraes are tackling the issue of advanced robotic mobility by working with small research robots that can play soccer, among other things.

The goal is to look at how a robot can be designed and programmed to react to unexpected situations–the kind that a fleet-footed human football player does every moment, almost without thinking–including collisions, uneven ground, sudden changes in direction or momentum needed to avoid an impact and so on. If the bot can learn to cleverly and speedily move its limbs and place its feet so as not to fall over in a game situation in the lab, the hope is that the science can be scaled up to suit the larger robots that may be roaming our homes, workplaces and hospitals in the coming years.

The Sex Movie Bots

Not much to say about this, other than “wow.” Or perhaps to ponder how much robots have penetrated our modern consciousness. What we’re talking about here is an official entry into the hallowed Sundance film festival for 2012 called Meaning of Robots. It’s a short documentary about a guy who’s actually making another animated film about robots having…sex. If that intrigues you, then you’ll be interested in the trailer below–with the warning that it’s probably Not Safe For Work, if only because of the strong language.


Fascinating, and just the beginning of all sorts of strange social and moral questions that we’ll have to face when our lives intersect with robots more frequently.

Chat about these developments with Kit Eaton (or K1T3 as he’s known to robot pals) 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!)