Say the word “robot” to any man, woman or child and they’ll probably conjure up images straight out of science fiction. Robots haven’t exactly enjoyed good PR since their public debut in 1939, and for a very human reason: We don’t understand how they work. This makes it easy to think of robots as emotionless boxes of circuits. Unfair. From ailment-treating robots, to solar panel cleaning robots, there’s a lot more to them than that.
Robots already do a lot for us. You’re probably not aware of it, but there are thousands of types of robots already at work in America and across the world as we speak—with jobs in industries ranging from entertainment to the military. Here are some of the coolest robots working today.
ELEKTRO THE ROBOT
If you asked a child to draw a robot, they would probably sketch something similar to Elektro, the world’s first celebrity robot. Elektro made his debut at the 1939 New York World’s Fair to a storm of media attention, reportedly making some attendees faint in disbelief. He could walk by voice command, spoke about 700 words (thanks to a small bank of 78 RPM record players deep within his belly) and could even smoke cigarettes.
Elektro was a big deal at the World’s Fair two years in a row. Unfortunately for his career, World War II broke out and metal rationing prevented any additional Elektros from being built. By 1950 he was relegated to a simple roadside attraction in Santa Monica, California, and spent much of the latter half of the 20th century dismantled, sitting in a Midwestern barn.
But like many other aging celebrities, Elektro is staging a comeback… of sorts. In the early 2000s, with humanity’s renewed interest in robotics, Elektro was reassembled and turned on for the first time in 50 years. The original is currently in an Ohio museum, but there’s a second Elektro made to the original’s exact specifications and available for special events.
Sure, he may be a big show-pony of a robot with simple electronics, but he started a trend that continues to this day. Don’t believe us? Just ask the AI in your pocket (Alexa, Siri, Google, etc.) what they think.
UCSF PHARMACY ROBOT
Getting a prescription filled used to involve some hushed talk at a drug store counter, before you patiently waited for the pharmacist to go to the back of the store, put pills in a bottle and… [yawn]. Yeah, let’s just say it could take a while, and it was a socially uncomfortable experience.
Researchers at the University of California San Francisco decided to take an entirely different route, building a pharmacy run (almost) completely by robots. Once the doctor prescribes your meds, a message is sent to the pharmacy so your prescription will be ready when you arrive. But instead of a hastily-scrawled doctor’s note, you simply present a barcode to the robot, which—after a short wait (to make sure everything is in order)—will dispense your pills via a robotic arm, like a giant version of a vending machine.
Without a single dosage error in its 5+ years of operation, the pharmacy robot signals a new era in pharmaceuticals. An era that doesn’t involve leaning over to whisper what your symptoms are to a lady in a lab coat.
The car ruled the 20th century in a way few other inventions had. It changed the physical landscape of much of America (and the world), and even the economic landscape, too. The gas industry—which fuels the cars, lest we forget—has helped make some nations and corporations incredibly rich.
But putting all your eggs in one basket by, oh, let’s say, balancing much of the world’s economy on a single commodity, isn’t such a great idea. Self-driving cars are about to turn gas-guzzling, person-driven automobiles into a thing of the past by getting from Point A to Point B without even having to hold the wheel or touch the gas pedal, which could mean huge things for the environment.
Several self-driving vehicles—robots on wheels, really—are already being made by some of the Bay Area’s top tech firms, and the future for them looks pretty bright. With the great American freeway system already in place, soon you might be able to say, “Take me to New York,” and watch as your car whisks you away to the Big Apple—all while using a lot less fossil fuel than you would have a generation ago. There’s even talk of solar-powered, self-driven cars which, in theory, means that gas itself may someday be a thing of the past. And speaking of solar powered…
SOLAR PANEL CLEANING ROBOTS
With gasoline on its way out, scientists are looking for alternate energy sources to help fuel our planet. And what better source of power than the one right above our heads: the Sun. As fossil fuel reserves across the world continue to deplete, it’s clear renewable energy is the way of the future. Solar power could save America billions of dollars, yet solar panels alone can’t save the world. They need the help of solar panel cleaning robots to keep them operating in tip-top condition.
Let’s say, hypothetically, there’s a field full of solar panels in New Jersey and it’s autumn. Beautiful foliage, right? Unfortunately, falling foliage and airborne particles can accumulate on solar panels and build up over time, thereby blocking the sun from the panel and rendering that portion of a solar panel useless. Enter SunPower’s handy solar panel cleaning robots.
Using some pretty neat technology, SunPower’s robots scale solar panels and wipe the dirty surfaces clean. And, thanks to their onboard computer brains, they only clean when necessary—which saves you energy and money. Although currently only available for commercial-scale ground installations, they seem like a no-brainer.
Boston Dynamic’s BigDog robot is an imposing beast: an unholy cross between a football linebacker and a wild bull. It can muster speeds of about 4 MPH (roughly equivalent to the speed of a light jog), but BigDog’s main advantage is that it can maintain that speed over incredibly rough terrain—think steep hillside or Arctic tundra. The secret is in the way it recycles energy with each step, much like how a human or an animal walks. Using motion-sensors and a gyroscope, it can absorb shock and climb at length against a 35º incline.
Until 2015 BigDog was used by the U.S. Marine Corps to help carry up to 350 lbs. of gear at a time, and since then it has found a second career carrying everything from film equipment to emergency supplies. There’s even a small version of BigDog, called Spot. This puppy can travel faster than BigDog, but alas, it can only carry about 40 lbs.
It may not look quite like a science fiction novel outside your door, but we’re already living in the future, with thousands of robots toiling away in the workforce. And while they might not be walking among us in human form, Blade Runner-style just yet, there’s a lot more to robots than you’d initially think.