In 2013, we posted 282 articles on robotics. A lot of amazing stuff happened this year, and we did our best to cover absolutely all of it. But one of the downsides of posting as many articles as we do is that we're constantly forced to keep moving on to the latest thing, and it's too easy to forget what happened last month, last week, or even yesterday. With that in mind, we thought it would be nice to close out the year with a look back at some of our (entirely subjective) favorite stories and videos from 2013.
BigDog and WildCat
Thanks to a pile of military money and boundless creativity and technical expertise, Boston Dynamics consistently creates the most amazingly advanced robots that you're likely to see anywhere. They also have a frustrating habit of posting spectacular videos out of nowhere, like these two, showing a scary modification to BigDog and the world's fastest legged robot.
DARPA needed a strong and capable robot for its Robotics Challenge, so it turned to Boston Dynamics. Building on existing platforms like PETMAN, Boston Dynamics created ATLAS, a massive, hydraulically powered humanoid rugged enough to take part in DARPA's disaster scenarios.
Amazon Delivery Drones
Amazon would have you believe that by 2015, drones will be delivering packages to your doorstep. It's an entertaining vision, but sorry Amazon, we're not buying it.
Robotic Coffee Fetching
Teaching a robot to fetch a cup of coffee might not seem like a big deal, and indeed, it's an example of a typical sort of robot research demo where the objective seems to be a complex task of limited usefulness. However, demos like these really do advance the state of the art in robotics, and this video helps us to explore how researchers do it.
Robotic Furniture Assembly
Yes, finally, it's robots doing stuff that can actually make your life better: assembling IKEA furniture for you. And even more importantly, they can both ask you for help when they need it, and ignore you when you botch the task that they ask you for help on, you useless human you.
Our biggest story of the year, in terms of sheer popularity, was the in-depth feature we put together on NASA JSC's Valkyrie DRC robot. Over 1,000,000 people watched our video, and for good reason, we like to think: Valkyrie is a huge step forward for NASA robotics. We'll be following up with the team at JSC next year about their plans for 2014 and the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals.
Every Willow Garage spinout is worthy of attention, but what interested us most about Unbounded Robotics is the fact that they've taken the PR2 and made it 10 times cheaper without sacrificing an undue amount of capability. It's too early to tell how successful the UBR-1 will be, but we're uncharacteristically optimistic on this one.
UAVs at NASA Dryden
One of the highlights of the year for us was a visit to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, out in the California desert at Edwards Air Force Base. Dryden has a fleet of UAVs that it uses to conduct a variety of research, ranging from huge Global Hawks studying hurricanes to small model aircraft testing autonomous collision avoidance software. We don't get to hear a lot about what's being worked on out there, so being able to visit was a special treat.
It was very, very difficult for us to break the news about Willow Garage transitioning out of robotics research and getting absorbed into Suitable Technologies. We were there at Willow's PR2 Beta Launch Party, and we enthusiastically followed them as they spun out companies left and right while revolutionizing the robotics industry with both the PR2 and ROS. It's unlikely that we'll see a company like Willow again, and we'll be continually grateful for everything they've done.
We post a lot about quadcopters. Like, seriously, a lot. But it's hard not to, because they can do such amazing stuff, especially in motion-capture environments. ETH Zurich is to blame for some of the more creatively spectacular demonstrations, like these quadcopters juggling an inverted pendulum.
RHex is one of the more talented and diverse robotic platforms out there, but it's still surprising to see what this hexapod is capable of when serious researchers at the University of Pennsylvania put serious work into making it do serious things. Very serious things. Like acrobatics!
FEMA vs. UAVs
The FAA still has a year or two before it has to lay down rules allowing for the use of UAVs in public airspace, and the fact that technology has far outpaced policy was illustrated during flooding in Colorado. We picked up on a story about FEMA preventing a local UAV company from aiding in relief efforts (for free), and followed up with both sides to reveal a frustrating breakdown in communications and jurisdiction that revealed what a mess things are right now.
Robots on Mars
The fact that we have robots driving around on Mars should be headline news every single day. Curiosity has been on the surface of Mars for over 500 days, and has learned how to autonomously navigate. Meanwhile, Opportunity is approaching its 10 year mark of doing science on Mars, which is a spectacular achievement, considering that the original mission duration was a mere 90 days.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Google decided that it would be kind of fun to get into robotics. So, they went shopping, and bought up a handful of innovative robotics companies from around the world, including Boston Dynamics, Schaft (the winner of the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials), Meka Robotics, Redwood Robotics, and Bot & Dolly. It's tricky to figure out what Google might be working on with this combination of technologies and expertise, but it's also fun to think about how a company like Bot & Dolly might influence whatever direction they'll be taking.
The first of the two big yearly IEEE robotics conferences, ICRA 2013 brought us to Karlsruhe, Germany. As always, there was an enormous amount of robotics research being presented, and here are some of the work that stood out for us, plus a mash-up video:
IROS was held in Tokyo in 2013, a city which is no stranger to robots, having had decades of experience with watching them fight giant monsters. The conference itself was rather light on giant monsters, but we were treated to an earthquake or two, and research presentations like these made up for any additional shortfall:
IREX was a new experience for us: held every other year in Tokyo, it's an enormous trade show with a heavy emphasis on Asian industrial robotics. This year, it synced up with IROS, which gave us the perfect excuse to check things out.
DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials
It should be no surprise that the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials made it into our list of top videos for the year: we've been looking forward to the event since 2012, and it featured the most complex humanoid robots all competing against each other in tasks that will ultimately benefit humanity. The Trials are just that: Trials, and in 2014, the Finals should bring us the future of robotics.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.
Erico Guizzo is the Director of Digital Innovation at IEEE Spectrum, and cofounder of the IEEE Robots Guide, an award-winning interactive site about robotics. He oversees the operation, integration, and new feature development for all digital properties and platforms, including the Spectrum website, newsletters, CMS, editorial workflow systems, and analytics and AI tools. An IEEE Member, he is an electrical engineer by training and has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.