Last time we saw DARPA's Autonomous Robotic Manipulation testbed robot, it grabbed one of our cameras by the face. That was fun, but it's not especially practical. Now, this—this is practical: using some low-cost (sub-$3,000) hands from iRobot and Sandia National Labs, the robot can now autonomously use tools to mostly change a car tire.
A bit of an abrupt ending, perhaps, but as far as roboticists are concerned, if bolting a wheel onto a car is just unbolting it run backwards, solving one means they've solved the other. For the record, though, they're still working on getting the bolts threaded back onto the nuts.
There are two things going on here that are worth getting excited about. Thing one is that the ARM robot is learning to work in unstructured environments, which is a fancy way of saying that it's got a chance of being able to do stuff outside of the lab it was born in, potentially in either direct sunlight or partial shadow (but probably not both, let's not get crazy here), and without the assistance of a Vicon motion-capture system. Thing two is that the robot is learning to deal with high-level commands, which is what it's going to take for anybody
who isn't a roboticist to get a robot to complex task. A high-level command is a command like "robot, change my tire" or "robot, clean my house" or "robot, get me a sandwich."
Now, seeing as that first "D" in "DARPA" is for "Defense," the agency is hoping that the robot can help out with a range of potentially dangerous Department-of-Defense-type applications, including defusing improvised explosive devices and searching bags. That's great, but for our part, we're just waiting for the day when all cars come with a tire-changing robot as standard equipment.