For using AI to reinvent the remote-controlled car. Anki is hardly the first robot toymaker to boast about the algorithms stuffed into its high-end playthings. But Anki Drive, which debuted during an Apple press conference back in 2013, lives up to the hype. Rather than locking its miniature Formula One cars into grooves on a track, Anki embeds cameras and IR sensors into the toys, and lets them steer themselves. Even the human-controlled racers smooth out user input, turning commands into more precise on-track movements. Along with demonstrating just how smart a toy can be, Anki Drive is a rare success for the normally fallow consumer robotics industry—customers have driven the toys more than 800,000 miles, and the San Francisco startup nearly doubled its staff during 2014. If this sounds like a lot of tech just for a little racing game, Anki CEO and cofounder Boris Sofman agrees. “We want to eventually leave entertainment,” he says, “and go into other areas where these approaches would apply, like the home or sports or even transportation.” And if he pulls it off, Anki will embody that old cliché: All important tech starts out looking like toys.
For marching wearable robots into the home. This past June, the ReWalk Personal System became the first exoskeleton to be cleared by the FDA for use at home and in the community. No longer stuck in laboratories or rehab facilities, these robotic devices can now help users move about the world, restoring some of the lower-limb mobility lost to injury or disease. ReWalk Robotics’ model essentially walks for its wearer, balancing and adjusting its gait as it steps forward, and proving a first glimpse of a future where exoskeletons are as commonplace as wheelchairs.
For automating lifesaving diagnostics. Despite its high-tech trappings, genetic sequencing is typified by menial lab work, as technicians painstakingly sort, test, and prep individual DNA samples for analysis. But with its self-contained robotic laboratory, Bay Area startup Counsyl has turned a costly, labor-intensive process into a mainstream product. By loading saliva samples into a cluster of hundreds of bots, Counsyl has cut the cost of genetic early-warning screenings in half, compared to more established diagnostic labs. The startup’s machine workers have already handled material from 250,000 customers, helping to inform prospective parents of the risks of passing specific diseases to a planned child. This past year, however, marked the launch of Counsyl’s inherited-cancer screening test, which could help millions of people take clinical action before the onset of breast, prostate, or other forms of cancer.
For taking human targets out of military convoys. Early last year, a convoy of fully autonomous driverless military trucks rolled through Fort Hood, Texas, relying solely on their own algorithms to maintain formation and deal with pedestrians, intersections, and other traffic conditions. This demonstration by Lockheed Martin was the realization of an initiative that started more than a decade ago, when roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan signaled a shift in the state of modern warfare and a need for unmanned cargo vehicles. Lockheed’s solution, in which self-driving control modules are installed into existing trucks (rather than creating more expensive robots from the ground up) arrived late to the battlefield. But with fewer humans transporting supplies, tomorrow’s ground wars might be a little less bloody.
For putting exoskeletons to work. One of most promising players in the growing field of wearable robotics is also the most unexpected. The shipbuilding arm of the South Korean Daewoo Group is developing exoskeletons for use in its sprawling shipyards, to help workers carry heavy loads by hand. The hydraulic, battery-powered systems deployed in a successful pilot test could run for three hours at a time and lift 66 pounds on their own. The company’s current goal, however, is nothing short of superhuman—effortless handling of loads weighing roughly 220 pounds.
For building the boldest self-driving car yet. Google made headlines in April, when it acquired a solar-powered drone maker to help expand global Internet access, continuing a robotics industry shopping spree that began in 2013. But in May, the search giant surprised everyone with a bot of its own creation, an autonomous microcar that was so confidently driverless, it didn’t even have a steering wheel. Field tests are already under way, but it’s important to note that the company has no real plans of selling its first-ever automobile. For now, the resources that Google is pouring into driverless vehicles isn’t about pushing products, but pushing the state of the art.
For turning bionic science fiction into prosthetic reality. Media coverage of advanced prosthetics can be misleading, implying that, once an experimental prosthesis shows promise in the lab, amputees everywhere are happily thinking their cybernetic limbs into action. In fact, these systems are limited to a tiny pool of test subjects. Or they were, until the FDA cleared DEKA Research’s Pentagon-funded robotic arm for sale in May. The “Luke” arm—named after a certain one-handed Star Wars protagonist—is the first to respond to signals from multiple nerves at once, and arguably the most sophisticated bionic limb on the market.
For revealing the 3-D-printed future of exoskeletons. Ekso Bionics had a good year in 2014—revenue jumped by some 52% during the first quarter of 2014, compared to the previous year, and its $20.6M IPO was substantial for a small robotics firm. More impressive, though, was its vision of where exoskeletons are headed. In February, the company unveiled the world’s first 3-D-printed exo, a bionic suit with components that were custom-fabricated to its wearer’s proportions. Considering how much weight these types of systems have to bear, and how uncomfortable so many current medical devices are, here’s hoping the rest of the burgeoning exo industry follows suit.
For handling manipulation tasks without fingers. The squishy, bloblike Versaball isn’t the prettiest robotic gripper. It’s a little grotesque, actually, flowing around tools or door handles and then hardening in place. But it works, achieving the kind of versatile dexterity that’s normally seen in humanlike robot hands, at a fraction of the cost. The Versaball’s oozing efficiency earned Boston-based startup Empire Robotics more than $1 million in grants in 2014 alone, with prospective applications that range from gripping asteroid samples to delivering affordable prostheses.
For improving human control of air and ground bots. Neya Systems was on a roll in 2014, racking up a steady stream of Pentagon contracts. Two of those projects, however, have the potential to change the way unmanned military vehicles are piloted. The first would allow humans to effectively pilot ground robots with a trickle of data (as little as 3 kbps) and long lag times (delays of up to 5 seconds). Another notable project would let soldiers command unmanned helicopters with an Android device, telling robots where to land to drop off supplies or pick up casualties.