Manipulator Operated Robot, aka Mobot

Photo essay: robots

The robots are coming and E&T is getting up close and personal

We used to think of them as big, dull machines with repetitive movements, firmly attached to the factory floor. That was half a century ago. Today, robots are nothing like that. They interact with lonely people as a cuddly animal would, explore Martian dunes, and roam disaster areas to search for victims. Meet some of the world's most amazing robots, some of which took part in the recent Darpa Robotics Challenge Finals in California. They really make Isaac Asimov's and Arthur Clark's sci-fi creations come to life.

1. One of the most elaborate robots of yesteryear, Manipulator Operated Robot, aka Mobot, is a 1950s baby. Designed by Hughes Aircraft Company for the Atomic Energy Division, its aim was to work in areas too hazardous for people to be in.

2. This is DRC-Hubo, winner of the 2015 Darpa challenge and its $2m top prize. Built by South Korea's Team Kaist, it beat 22 others completing an obstacle course that mimicked conditions similar to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. The robots faced eight tasks such as driving a car, turning a valve, climbing stairs, and drilling a hole - in an environment similar to the aftermath of a nuclear meltdown.

3. Say hi to the world's first-ever bionic man that can breathe, walk and talk – and is built entirely from bionic body parts and implantable artificial organs: 17 of them in all. Designed by the Shadow Robot Company for Darlow Smithson Productions for Channel 4 and Smithsonian TV, and modelled on Bertolt Meyer from the University of Zurich, 'Frank' has a beating heart and wears a robotic exoskeleton made by REX Bionics.

4. Who said robots were only for doing boring stuff? This droid, designed by British artist Giles Walker, knows how to pole-dance. Made from 12V motors more commonly used for windscreen wipers in cars, it is controlled via PC. Will it be the robotic stripper of a Blade Runner future?

5. He can walk, march, run, sit, and kneel. He can even mimic the moves of a soldier sighting a weapon. He's a robot. His name is Porton Man, and he exists to test the next generation of chemical and biological protective suits for the UK's armed forces. Researchers can spray him with nerve agents like Sarin, and he won't mind.

6. Honda's humanoid Asimo robot was born in 2000. The latest version can jump, run, sign and bring you coffee without spilling it. Oh, and it reacts to what happens around it, so it will move out of a person's way. Isaac Asimov would be proud.

7. RoboSimian from Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has four limbs, seven cameras and a lidar system. Not only can it walk, but it can also roll over various surfaces, and pick up and manipulate objects, and even turn off valves. As a rescue robot, RoboSimian could go where humans simply can't reach.

8. Cheetah is the world's fastest land animal – and MIT's robotic Cheetah rightly merits its name. It's the first four-legged robot to run and jump over obstacles autonomously. The latest version that went to the Darpa Robotics Challenge finals weighs 32kg (roughly the same as a female cheetah) and can see and jump over hurdles as it runs, maintaining an average speed of 8km/h. It estimates the height, size, and distance of objects ahead, adjusting and preparing a jump and safe landing, all without slowing down.

9. This military robot with extended sensor arm is designed for bomb disposal, aiding in nuclear disasters, screening vehicles, and searching buildings, bunkers, tunnels and caves. It was developed by iRobot Corporation, and thousands have already been delivered to military and civil defence forces worldwide, working in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

10. We know more about space than we do about the ocean – and Wave Gliders aim to change that. These autonomous drones surf the oceans to map and study them. Built by Liquid Robotics, they run solely on solar and wave-powered energy, gathering data for marine research as an alternative to using costly and labour-intensive boats and submarines.

11. It looks like a woman. It talks like a woman. But it's a robot – an ultra life-like robot that has just started work as a receptionist at a department store in Tokyo, Japan. Called Aiko Chihira and made by Toshiba, the robot will help welcome customers to the shop, and offer directions in Japanese and Chinese.

12. Want a meal cooked by a Michelin star restaurant chef, right in your kitchen? Soon, you may be able to buy a 'robo-chef' made by Moley Robotics, with hands developed by London-based Shadow Robot Company. The prototype, shown at this year's Hannover Messe trade fair in Germany, learns by capturing the movements of a real chef – and delighted visitors to the show by making a crab bisque to highest standards, consistently every time.

13. Kids used to do it for hundreds of years – sitting on racing camels and getting them to win. Since 2002, the practice has been outlawed, but the race in the dusty desert remained, with one change. Now the camels are guided by tiny robot jockeys with shock absorbers and GPS tracking systems. The camels' owners zoom alongside in cars, wirelessly controlling the robots' whips.

14. It's ready for battle, or at least it seems to be. This Darpa mule (or Legged Squad Support System) is operated by a sensor strapped to a human foot, and designed to accompany soldiers, totally autonomously, helping to carry their gear.

Image credits: Darpa, Corbis, Getty Images, Honda, MIT, Liquid Robotics 

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