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10 Robots That Are Learning Scary New Skills

by Daniel Nest
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Thanks to sci-fi movies, we all know what to expect when AI is finally here: The AI won’t take long to realize that robots are vastly superior to the fragile meat sacks called humans. At that point, our days will be numbered.

Sci-fi movies are a warning about the dangers of human hubris, but it’s very clear that we don’t heed this warning. This is why we continue to develop new robots and give them an increasingly terrifying arsenal of tricks.

10 Samurai Robot Arm Is Precise Enough To Split A Peapod In Half

YASKAWA BUSHIDO PROJECT / industrial robot vs sword master

Meet Motoman MH24, an industrial robot arm built by the Yaskawa Electric Corporation. This robot may be just a single limb, but what it lacks in body parts, it makes up for in chilling precision when handling a katana.

In a misguided attempt to promote its products with a viral video, Yaskawa taught the MH24 how to wield the centuries-old samurai weapon. To do that, Yaskawa technicians enlisted the help of one Isao Machii, a five-time world record holder in the art of slicing things with a sword. Machii wore a motion-capture suit that recorded his movements and fed them to the MH24. During later stages of the project, Yaskawa staff had to wear helmets and body armor to avoid accidental decapitation.

After learning all there was to learn, the robot arm faced Machii in a competition where they had to slash random objects with their blades. The MH24 had no problem slicing fruit and tatami mats. It even split a horizontally placed peapod right across the middle. The machine was just as effective as Machii when it came to chopping things, with the added advantage of never having to rest.

If robots of the future will ever need a merciless executioner, they now have the perfect candidate. If it’s any consolation, the Yaskawa team apparently needed several months to successfully teach the MH24 this impressive skill. But here’s the thing about robots: Once they’ve learned, they don’t forget.

9 Cheetah Now Leaps Over Hurdles

MIT cheetah robot lands the running jump

You might already be familiar with the Cheetah robot from Boston Dynamics (now Google), a quadrupedal monster capable of running as fast as 45 kilometers per hour (28 mph). What you might not know is that it recently got a few sweet—or, more appropriately, frightening—upgrades: Cheetah can now hop over obstacles.

Using a laser-based sensor to “see” the hurdles, Cheetah calculates the most optimal way to jump over them. After the jump, the robot lands on its feet and continues on its way. This is a pretty incredible feat for a machine that weighs 32 kilograms (70 lb). You can no longer hope to escape from the four-legged terror beast by simply hurling stuff in its path. Cheetah can easily scale objects as high as 46 centimeters (18 in).

As the next step, Google scientists are planning to test the Cheetah out in the open to see how it performs on soft, uneven terrain—giving it the perfect opportunity to escape into the wild.

8 Insect Robots Can Jump On Water

Can a robot jump on water?

What do you get when a team of biologists, biorobotics experts, and mechanical engineers get together to study the behavior of water striders? A robot that can perfectly mimic that behavior, evidently. Reuters has already compared this new robot to the sinister spider bots from Minority Report.

It all started when a team from Seoul National University (and one participant from Harvard) used high-speed cameras to analyze how tiny water striders manage to jump on water without breaking the surface tension. It turns out that water striders accelerate gradually while making the jump to make sure the water doesn’t break under pressure at any point. Inspired by this discovery, researchers proceeded to make an insect robot that follows the same principle.

The miniature bot has a body that’s only 2 centimeters (0.8 in) long and balances on 5-centimeter (2 in) legs made of thin wires. The robot’s “feet” are covered in a layer of water-repellent material to give it that extra edge. It weighs a mere 68 milligrams. As a result, the bot can leap over 14 centimeters (5.5 in) into the air. What’s more, it does this equally well from a hard surface and from water.

The only downside of the current prototype is that it can only jump once and doesn’t land on its feet. But the research team already plans to build an upgraded version that can also swim and execute far more complex tasks. To quote Je-sung Koh, one of the co-leads of the study published in Science, these tasks may include “military surveillance.” So if you weren’t worried before, now may be a good time to start.

7 Six-Legged Insect Bot Adapts To Its Environment

HECTOR – The six-legged walking robot

This insect-looking guy is called “Hector,” which sounds far more innocent than its full name: Hexapod Cognitive autonomously Operating Robot. It’s made by researchers at Bielefeld University in Germany and is inspired by the motion of stick insects.

Hector has six limbs, and it can move each one of them independently. This is called “free gait” and lets the robot quickly adapt to the surface it’s walking on. Each leg can even change course mid-step, which helps Hector climb over unpredictable obstacles in its path.

How is this possible? Well, each of Hector’s limbs consists of three passive elastic joints that act like muscles. A complex network of sensors gives Hector’s legs the ability to react to what they can sense. Apparently, Hector’s appendages can even learn from experience.

Hector may not look like much, but its body is made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP), making it both super light and very tough. Thanks to this, Hector can easily carry heavy objects. An earlier prototype weighed 12 kilograms (26 lb) but could carry loads of up to 30 kilograms (66 lb).

As if the idea of a strong insectoid robot that can traverse rough and unpredictable terrain isn’t worrisome enough, the researchers are now planning to add a special camera that will allow Hector to see its surroundings just like insects do. Oh, and they’re also equipping Hector with two special feelers that will help the robot make sense of objects by touching them.

6 Spot Always Keeps Its Balance

Introducing Spot Classic (previously Spot)

You’ve likely already met Spot’s bulky older brother, BigDog, a maniac with four legs that can throw cinder blocks around like rag dolls and carry up to 50 kilograms (100 lb) on its back. While Spot isn’t quite as big or as tough, it’s got a few tricks of its own. For starters, Spot can easily climb steps and briskly walk up steep slopes. Its preferred pace is a jog even though Spot weighs a respectable 70 kilograms (160 lb).

Most impressively, Spot is nearly impossible to knock off balance. It’s an upgrade of BigDog’s similar self-balancing mechanism and works surprisingly well. To prove this, Google researchers have a habit of repeatedly trying to kick Spot to the ground. You can see one such kick at 00:28 in the above video. We can only hope that Spot isn’t committing all of this abuse to long-term memory.

At another point in the video (01:25), we can see a pair of Spot robots walking up a hill together. One seems to nudge the other as it bumps into it, over and over again, until the pair are in perfect sync as they scale the slope. This seemingly collective behavior has not been intentionally programmed. Instead, it’s a natural result of Spot’s balance-correcting system, which doesn’t make it feel any less uncanny.

5 Robotic Cockroach Can Squeeze Through Tight Spaces

Cockroach robot uses curves to get through gap

Robots and cockroaches are two things best left uncombined, but that didn’t stop this research project, funded by the US Army Research Laboratory. So now we have a robotic cockroach that can squeeze through obstacles, just like his biological counterpart. And it’s as disturbing as you might imagine.

While most robots depend on sensors and advanced programming, the six-legged cockroach bot relies on its physical shape to accomplish the task of going through obstacles and looking creepy in the process.

The research team tested three different shapes for the robot’s shell—rectangular, oval cone, and flat oval. Their findings are not particularly surprising: The less rounded the shape, the more difficult it is for the bot to squeeze through obstacles. This is how they’ve arrived at the final cockroach form.

Not content to simply leave this abomination as is, the team is already thinking of future robots that can morph their shape on demand to better suit the type of obstacle they’re facing.

4 Gecko Robot Climbs Walls Carrying 100 Times Its Weight

Micro robot climbs vertical glass carrying 100 times its weight

We’ve told you before about RISE, a robot that can climb vertical surfaces.

That was two years ago. In 2015, we now have a robot that climbs vertical surfaces while also carrying 100 times its own weight. That’s not a typo. Made by mechanical engineers at Stanford University, these tiny bots climb vertical walls with far heavier weights strapped behind them.

They draw inspiration from geckos, using sticky feet to grip the wall. Each foot has a collection of rubber spikes that bend when sticking to the wall and straighten when detaching. Their movements are incredibly deliberate to make sure the robot doesn’t risk falling: One foot grips the wall tightly while the other moves forward. As a result, a miniscule, 9-gram (0.3 oz) robot can drag as much as 1 kilogram (2 lb) of stuff behind it. If this is scalable, a 1-kilogram (2 lb) robot could easily carry an average human.

Stanford scientists are also applying this concept to ground bots that don’t need to fight gravity by climbing up. One such bot, µTug, weighs only a bit more than its gecko cousins: 12 grams (0.4 oz). But µTug can pull a load that is a whopping 2,000 times heavier. Again, that’s not a typo. As researcher David Christensen puts it, that’s the same as a human “pulling around a blue whale.”

Just in case you’re wondering: Yes, the team is absolutely thinking of using their adhesive feet method on bigger, more powerful robots. “If you leave yourself a little more room, you can do some pretty amazing things,” Christensen concludes.

3 Self-Healing Robot Shrugs Off Damage To Limbs

Robots that can adapt like animals (Nature cover article)

Robots aren’t exactly the best improvisers. They’re built to handle narrowly defined tasks in a relatively predictable environment. Even minor damage can turn one from a competent machine to a worthless pile of junk. That’s because it’s simply not practical for designers to anticipate all the possible scenarios a robot could face and program a contingency response for each. But what if you could teach a robot to “think outside the box“?

That’s just what Jean-Baptiste Mouret and a team of researchers at the Pierre and Marie Curie University have done. They wanted a robot that could change its behavior in response to damage, much like animals who won’t put pressure on an injured limb. So they’ve developed a trial-and-error program for that exact purpose. Their robot starts out with a thorough knowledge of its own movements. When injured, it tries different ways of walking to find one that best compensates for the damage. Fans of Dead Space’s “strategic dismemberment” should be familiar with the challenge.

The researchers have tested their program on a six-legged, 50-centimeter (20 in) robot. Remarkably, the robot found a way to walk after suffering many types of damage—including when two of its limbs were completely broken. The team also tested a robotic arm, which continued to perform its task after its joints were broken in 14 different ways. As researcher Antoine Cully said to ABC Science, “It’s amazing to watch a robot go from crippled and flailing around to efficiently limping away in about two minutes.” Amazing? Sure. But also quite unsettling, if we had to guess.

2 Flying ‘Bat’ Robot Can Also Walk

A flying robot that can walk

All you really should know about this robot is that it’s based on vampire bats. If that fact alone isn’t enough to give you nightmares, here’s more: It’s a flying robot that also walks, and its preferred method of landing is a “controlled crash.” The bat bot is named DALER after its inventor, Ludovic Daler, and is short for “Deployable Air-Land Exploration Robot.”

DALER has a foldable skeleton, so it can deploy and retract its wings on demand. In the air, its rotating wings help it control altitude. On the ground, they fold so that DALER can better navigate through tight spaces. When airborne, DALER can reach speeds of up to 72 kilometers per hour (45 mph). This drops dramatically to only 6 centimeters per second (2 in/s) once the robo-bat hits the ground, so it’s really more of a slow crawl. But this ability gives DALER the chance to land, negotiate an obstacle, reorient itself, and take off again.

As of today, DALER usually needs a bit of a push to take off. Future versions, however, will do this on their own. As Ludovic Daler explains on the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems website: “Future development of the DALER will include the possibility to hover and to take off autonomously from the ground in order to allow the robot to return to the air and come back to base after the mission.” What that mission will entail is not specified, so you’ll be forgiven for assuming the worst.

1 Humanoid Hubo Is Disturbingly Versatile

Top 10 Robots That Are Having Scary New Skills

All robots discussed so far are, for the most part, one-trick ponies. They’re built with a limited set of skills that are best suited for their specific jobs. Wouldn’t it be incredible if a robot could do many diverse things equally well? Let us introduce Hubo.

Hubo is a bipedal robot made by South Korean Team KAIST to compete in DARPA’s 2015 Robotics Challenge in Pomona, California. The challenge was all about seeing how robots performed across a wide range of tasks, mostly autonomously. They needed to drive and get out of a car, open doors, clear obstacles, turn handles, and even walk up a flight of stairs—a notoriously difficult feat for bipedal robots.

Hubo faced 22 other robots and went on to win the challenge. It completed the entire course in 44 minutes and 28 seconds, netting its human makers a $2 million prize in the process. Hubo excelled mainly due to its transformer ability: It walks on two legs but has wheels built into its knees that let it quickly switch to driving when terrain is suitable, which is a more stable and speedy way to get around. Hubo also has a rotating torso that helps the robot face different directions without turning its whole body.

If you watch the above video, you likely won’t be too impressed: Hubo looks quite clumsy and slow doing most tasks. But remember: Until now, many of these tasks were considered extremely tricky for any robot to perform. Hubo can do every single one of them with only limited guidance from human operators. Pretty soon, it might not need their guidance at all.

Daniel has a humor blog where he often finds other things to panic about.

fact checked by Jamie Frater