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What are Some Significant Recent Advances in Robotics?

Robots working on an automobile assembly line.
A robotic floor cleaner.
The use of robots by police and military forces for anti-bomb operations grew rapidly in the 1990s and 2000s.
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Robotics is a hot field which continually makes the news. Notable recent advances include a robotic arm so finely calibrated that it can pick up a light bulb without breaking it (Shadow Hand®), robotic cars that drive themselves through urban environments complete with traffic (DARPA Urban Challenge), prosthetic arms controlled by brain-computer interfaces (BrainGate®), and humanoid robots that can climb stairs and be guided by a person holding their hand (Asimo®).

Billions of dollars are spent worldwide every year on robotics research. Unfortunately, robotics has not progressed as fast as many anticipated in the 1980s, and home robotics is relatively limited, consisting of vacuum robots like Roomba® and its pool-washing cousin, Scooba®. Entertainment bots such as RoboSapien® and Pleo® are popular, with many others on the way.

The most advanced robots are used by the US military. PackBot®, made by the same company that makes Roomba®, iRobot Corp., serves as a robotic pack mule. Minesweeper robots have been used regularly in the Iraq war to clear the road of improvised explosive devices. The SWORDS robot, a tracked recon/combat robot has also been used in Iraq, and its cost is declining to the cost of training a soldier, suggesting that in the not-too-distant future, robots may replace human soldiers for tasks not requiring human intelligence or interaction. The Predator series of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) is a self-flying combat unit that is operated using simple remote controls.

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In manufacturing, robotic arms are used to automate tasks where economically feasible. The fastest operate many times more quickly than human hands, and often pay for themselves in mere months. The University of Tokyo created a robotic arm so fast that it can catch a baseball thrown at 186 mph. Robotics is routinely used in massively parallel biological research, where hundreds or thousands of micropipettes must be operated simultaneously.

It seems like only a matter of time until the long-awaited integration of robots into society in general, but for now, their most widespread application is in industry and the military.

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