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June 20, 2018updated 21 Jun 2018 10:23am

Robotics engineering: The companies building the robotic future

By Talal Husseini

Anything you can do, AI can do better. Developments in robotics engineering have resulted in a number of weird and wonderful advancements across many fields including military, manufacturing, service, and entertainment. From the latest army tech to the creation of social animatronic humanoids, robots are becoming much more commonplace. With UK Robotics Week coming up, here are five companies shaping the future of robotics engineering.

1. Hanson Robotics

Robotics engineering: Hanson Robotic's Sophia robot

You might not have heard of Hanson Robotics before, but you will know Sophia–and her 50 quirky facial expressions. Described as a ‘social humanoid robot’, Sophia epitomises just how far robotics engineering has come.

Sophia has become somewhat of a cult celebrity, appearing on late-night shows, magazine covers, headlined major technology conferences such as the Future Investment Institute in Saudi Arabia last year where ‘she’ was granted honorary citizenship, and has even delivered a speech at the United Nations on artificial intelligence and sustainable development.

At CogX AI festival in London last week, CEO David Hanson debated whether robots should be made to look like humans at all. One of the ethical considerations brought up by Alan Winfield, professor of robot ethics at the University of the West of England, was that anthropomorphic AI bots can play on human emotion and become ‘a deception’.

Hanson disagreed in principle, saying: “From prehistory and the caves of Lascaux to today’s animated movies and games, we have depicted the human form. We could say that art is deceptive, but it also brings great value into our world. We have created increasingly lifelike behaviour in animated figures in movies and games, and now we are creating AI agents.”

2. Boston Dynamics

Robotics engineering: Boston Dynamic's SpotMini robot

Much like Hanson Robotics, Boston Dynamics is engaged in the field of creating mobile robots: but this time taking inspiration from man’s best friend. The dog-like SpotMini robot will be on the market next year.

SpotMini is a four-legged robot that is small enough to be incorporated in the office or at home. It weighs 30kg and is run electronically, lasting around 90 minutes after full charging, depending on the task it is performing. It is also the quietest robot the company has built.

Like its larger robotic brother Spot, SpotMini is incredibly mobile. However, it also has the ability to pick up and handle objects using its 5 degrees-of-freedom arm and benefits from improved perception sensors. It comes equipped with stereo cameras, depth cameras, an inertial measurement unit (IMU), and position/force sensors in the limbs, helping SpotMini with navigation and autonomous mobile manipulation.

On stage at the CEBIT conference in Hannover, Germany, Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert said: “The SpotMini robot is one that was motivated by thinking about what could go in an office—in a space more accessible for business applications—and then, the home eventually.”

Watching SpotMini walking around, using sensors to locate doors and employing its robotic arm to open them–all without human interference–is incredibly exciting and terrifying at the same time.

3. Google AI

Robotics engineering: Google's cheetah robot in partnership with Boston Dynamics

These days, it’s hard to make a list of top companies in any field without mentioning the US tech giant.  Google’s aim is to create a machine learning agent that interacts with its environment without supervision. Characteristics such as skill acquisition, active learning, exploration, and reinforcement are all human learning traits that have not yet been perfected under supervised approaches.

For Google, robotics engineering and machine learning symbiotic. The company has fostered close collaborations between its machine learning researchers and roboticists to enable learning on real and simulated robotic systems.

Google says on its website: “We’re exploring how to teach robots transferable skills, by learning in parallel across many manipulation arms in our one-of-a-kind lab purpose-built for machine learning research.”

The aim is to teach robots how to navigate the world around them and make better and safer decisions. Self-driving cars are a good example of how Google will apply its knowledge to create an exciting, practical product. Data they collect on robotics engineering is made publicly available with an aim to advance the field further.

Google previously owned Boston Dynamics and together the two companies created some unique robots such as the Cheetah, which can run at speeds of more than 29mph, and the Sand Flea that can jump 30ft into the air. Google sold Boston Dynamics to Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group last year.

4. Lockheed Martin

Robotics engineering: Lockheed UAV drone

The use of robotics engineering in a military capacity is well-documented. One of the largest defence technology companies–Lockheed Martin–is one of those leading the line on robotics engineering. It is behind many of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, used by the US military, supported by the US Department of Defense that advocates their sale and use for military purposes worldwide.

Drones are being developed to carry essential supplies and equipment and deliver it to the battlefield. They can also perform vital services such as intelligence-gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance, without endangering lives.

Lockheed Martin is now looking into developing armed drones, capable of automatically planning ground-attack missions, mission re-planning to minimise exposure to threats, and demonstrating autonomous formation flying, route following, and joining up with each other.

In partnership with the US Air Force, Lockheed Martin launched an experiment called ‘Have Raider’, which was designed to show how autonomous robotic technologies could work in tandem with manned vehicles such as fighter jets.

This month, the company announced it was doubling investment in its technology investment fund from $100m to $200m. Regarding robotics engineering, Lockheed Martin has been looking into driverless cars as a potential way to incorporate robotics into weapons development. According to Chris Moran, the chief executive of Lockheed Martin Ventures, the fund has made two undisclosed investments in autonomous vehicles’ detection systems, ‘very closely aligned with the automobile industry’.

5. iRobot

Robotics engineering: iRobot's Mirra


The pioneers of autonomous cleaner-helper Roomba, iRobot has developed an army of service robots for the home. The Roomba is the most famous product–a compact, computerised vacuum cleaner that automatically guides itself around your home. It is very simple to use and navigates using infrared beams bouncing off of objects such as walls, with latest generations incorporating intelligent mapping.

Other products developed by iRobot are Braava, the company’s first Floor Mopping Robot, designed to work on all hard-surface floors. Compatible with disposable or microfiber cleaning cloths for damp and dry cleaning capabilities, Braava was developed by Evolution Robotics, acquired by iRobot in 2012. The Mirra was released in 2013 and is a designed to clean swimming pools by navigating along the walls and on the pool’s floor to pick up debris. The company released Create in 2007, a hobby robot that allows users to adapt functions by experimenting with basic elements of robotics engineering, as well as by adding sensors, arms, and other hardware.

iRobot also manufactures a huge variety of robot helpers for commercial use, in the fields of military/policing and medicine. The PackBot is a series of ground robots that navigate on tracks like a tank, and are useful for reconnaissance, bomb disposal, and other dangerous missions. Thousands of these robots were deployed in US-led conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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