This soft, serpentine robot can go where no bot has gone before: into the ground. The team of scientists behind the project at University of California-Santa Barbara and Georgia Tech in Atlanta were inspired by the capabilities of lizards, octopuses and plant roots. Making its debut in June, the flexible bot extends from the tip while keeping the rest of its body stable to reduce friction as it burrows and blows a bidirectional gust of air to loosen the earth ahead. The robot could be used to help install underground utilities or perform soil sampling, and the team is already working with NASA on a project to develop burrowing for the moon or even more distant bodies.
Charles Sturt University announced a partnership with the Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre in May to create Australia’s first fully automated, “hands-free” farm. Remote sensors will collect information on plants and soil, while AI algorithms manage when and where to sow and harvest in environmentally sustainable ways. Fully autonomous tractors and harvesters will carry out the dirty work, no farmhands required. When complete, the Global Digital Farm will produce commercial crops—such as wheat, canola and barley—and also be home to a vineyard, cattle and sheep. The project is intended to demonstrate the viability of a robot-run farm, while also educating local farmers in the use of data analytics, geospatial mapping, remote sensing, machine learning and cybersecurity.
When engineers in Shanghai wanted to relocate an 85-year-old, five-story school without destroying it, they took it for a walk. After excavating the building’s foundations, workers mounted 198 mobile robots to its underside. The robots work in tandem to lift and slide the 7,600-ton structure forward in a slow and steady march. Construction technology company Shanghai Evolution Shift designed the “walking machine,” which completed the 62-meter (67-yard) journey—including a 21-degree turn—over 18 days in September and October 2020.
The Moorebot Scout is only about 4 inches (10 centimeters) tall, but there’s a lot packed in there: security system, baby companion, pet watch and companionship and kids’ STEM project, all on four tiny wheels. Created by Chinese robotics company Pilot Labs, the AI-powered, self-driving rover can autonomously patrol a person’s home or yard (it’s waterproof), adapting its path to avoid unexpected obstacles. As it rolls, it livestreams high-def and night-vision footage or saves it straight to the cloud, depending on set preferences. The bot can also connect to Google and Alexa devices to receive voice control and can be programmed with the Scratch programming language designed for kids. After raising more than US$1 million through online crowdfunding, Moorebot plans to roll out the first US$169 units in late 2021.
Sure, the four-legged Spot robot is cute—but don’t expect it to play fetch with just anyone. Able to climb stairs and walk steadily along rough terrain, its main job is to increase efficiency and greatly reduce safety risks in the workplace. The world was first introduced to Spot in 2015, but Boston Dynamics has been working with a small group of “early adopters” that leased 150 of the robots to surveil construction sites, energy production facilities (including the Chernobyl nuclear site). In June 2020, Spot made is commercial debut at starting price is US$74,500, with add-ons including a tilt and zoom camera and LIDAR for enhanced remote sensing. The company—in which South Korea’s Hyundai acquired a majority stake in December 2020—reportedly sold more than 400 robots, generating more than US$30 million in revenue in the first five months following its debut.
A team of engineers, neuroscientists and child development specialists at Embodied Inc. began developing the conversational AI robot Moxie to teach social-emotional skills to kids. But they couldn’t have foreseen that it would enter the world at a time when so many children were sequestered at home, unable to play with their schoolmates. The team’s extra efforts to develop kid-friendly features certainly paid off. The curved screen that makes up Moxie’s face was a major challenge, for example, but it was important for creating a friendly-looking and lifelike character that kids could connect to. And the company also designed a machine learning framework that runs on an on-board processor, which meant private data was kept off the cloud. After raising some US$41 million, Embodied launched the playful blue bot in 2020.
Russian tech firm Yandex first sent out its six-wheeled autonomous robot to deliver takeout meals and groceries in a Moscow commercial district in late 2020. After a pilot run at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Russian rovers will be rolling around campuses across the U.S. in a multi-year deal with delivery service Grubhub. Look out for other robots on the go: In 2020, Silicon Valley startup Nuro won the first federal safety approval for operating its autonomous delivery vehicles on public roadways, lining up partnerships with brands including Domino’s, Walmart and CVS.
Leave it to the magic of Disney to make a more realistic robot. In this case, it’s all about eye contact. To create more lifelike face-to-face interactions between people and an AI robot, scientists at Disney Research incorporated elements of the natural human gaze, such as saccades (when the eyes flicker between two points of focus), periodically breaking eye contact and switching attention to a new person entering the conversation. The programming also enables the robot to make subtle tilts of the head to communicate recognition of and engagement with its human companions. The team presented a paper in late 2020, with the work potentially making its way into Disney live shows.
Public transport is looking up. Belarusian mobility company uSky Transport began testing its sleek, driverless sky pods in Sharjah, UAE in June. The four-seater, electric-powered pods run on a steel track suspended above ground and can travel up to 150 kilometers (93 miles) per hour. The company says a citywide network could transport 10,000 passengers in an hour, with some routes tailored for shorter trips and others for longer distances. The pods require fewer materials than an underground subway, reducing carbon emissions and cost less than a tenth to build.
Excavation is a dangerous and difficult part of construction work. Operators are faced with the risk of cave-ins and exposure to toxic materials in the ground. Researchers from Baidu Research Robotics and Auto-Driving Lab (co-located in the United States and China) and the University of Maryland in College Park joined forces to design an autonomous excavator system that can run continuously for 24 hours with no human intervention. Introduced in June, the large industrial robots—weighing up to 49 metric tons—use sensors and neural networking to identify target materials, avoid obstacles, and continue working even in rain and snow.