Robots in 2014: the six most exciting robots of the past year

The robots are coming. In 2014 we saw some of the most advanced robots in both homes and businesses, on land and sea and from the battlefield to space.

They’re not looking to take over, but to work alongside us; making our jobs and lives easier, or at least more entertaining. We’ll take a closer look in our 2014 robot review.

Best robots 2014: Pepper

One of the robots were most impressed with this year is Pepper. Equipped with an array of audio, visual and tactile sensors, Pepper is 120 centimeters tall or about 4 feet and weighs about 28 kg. It has two arms and rolls around on a wheeled base, with a lithium-ion battery that can power it for at least 12 hours. It will go on sale in Japan in February with a base price of about 1900 US dollars. We saw Pepper employed in a number of jobs around Tokyo this year. It was at the Softbank store for the iPhone 6 launch and later in the year it was helping sell Nescafe coffee machines.

Using voice and facial recognition, Pepper is supposed to be able to read people's emotions and respond accordingly. It's not perfect, but developers said it will get better with time.

Best robots 2014: Dyson 360-eye

While Pepper might not be able to help out around the house this new robot can and it's bringing some stiff competition to a company synonymous with household robotics. High end vacuum maker Dyson is looking to steal away market share from iRobot's Roomba. Dyson's 360-eye robot uses infrared sensors and a 360 degree camera to map out its environment while cleaning. It will go on sale in Japan in the first half of 2015 for about a thousand US dollars and elsewhere later in the year.

Best robots 2014: on the Quantum of the Seas

From land to sea and our next robot that can make you a drink while floating on the ocean. It all happens in the bionic bar on Royal Caribbean's new ship the Quantum of the Seas. After inputting your order on a tablet, the two Kuka robots get to work.

While it may seem like these two robots could easily put an army of bartenders out of work, that’s not the case. Two bartenders are standing by to help customers and answer questions about the bots.

From your evening cocktail to your morning coffee this robot on from Japan’s Kawada Industries goes through a methodical process of preparing a cup of Joe. Like the robotic bartender, the barista isn’t something coming to your regular coffee bar soon, but is more of what is possible with robotics and a little ingenuity.

Staying in Japan these humanoids prove that sometimes making a robot look like a human is just a little bit creepy. These two for example are tour guides at a museum in Tokyo. While this one, is a research project from Toshiba and can perform sign language.

Best robots 2014: Toshiba's research project

It's quite difficult to make a very human like movement. If you speed it too fast—it does vibrating or such. If the robot looks like a human being and does some slight, unnatural movement it makes you feel scared.

Like other humanoids, the skin is made of silicone. Robots like these have been shown in Japan for more than 10 years, but progress is slow and they have yet to find mainstream commercial applications.

Best robots 2014: BrainOS

One of the big drawbacks of robots is having to program them. The process can often be tedious and just wouldn't fit with most people's lifestyles. US startup Brain Corporation is looking to change that with a robot that can learn. Inside this iRover robot is the bStem developer kit that runs BrainOS. Here's how it works - first a user drives this robot around an obstacle course and after just one lap, the robot will have learned which obstacles to avoid. Projects like BrainOS put robots one step closer to making decisions like humans.

While some groups work on perfecting the brain of robots, a European research group is concentrating on the robot’s body. Roboy has 3D printed bones and joints and springs for muscles. They give the robot fluidity and human like movement. The work is part of a wider European research project called Myorobotics, which aims to create robots that are cheaper to build and safer to be around.

This year we saw a number of instances where robots were used to teach and excite students about science, technology, engineering and math. At MIT mechanical engineering students capped off their semester with a final exam in the form of a robotics competition. Or how about these high school students who joined 70,000 others around the world the in the FIRST robotics competition. They were given a kit of parts and had six weeks to build a robot that could pick up, toss and pass a ball to another robot. While still in Japan, Murata trotted out its latest trick performing robots. These robotic cheerleaders use a variety of sensors to balance atop a ball while executing a choreographed routine. The cheerleaders joined other balancing robots in what Murata hopes is a way to inspire students to purse STEM careers.

Best robots 2014: NASA's Robotnaut 2

NASA’s Robonaut 2 on the ISS orbiting the Earth got an upgrade this year...legs. Since arriving on the International Space Station in 2011, R2 has been put through a series of increasingly complex tasks to test the feasibility of a humanoid robot taking over the routine and mundane chores on the space station. Another NASA robot will help exlore the surface of the moon in 2018.

The moon’s a very cold place, there’s a lot f uncertainty about what the surface is like, especially in the polar regions. We don’t know if it’s incredibly soft or hard. We do know that it’s very rough and so one of the challenges for us is making robots that can handle rough terrain.

Once on the moon KRex will look for hydrogen beneath the surface. The rover has four wheels that are each individually powered and steered allowing it to navigate the rocky lunar surface.

Like space, the dangerous battlefield also lends itself to robotics. This year, the LS3 from Google owned Boston Dynamics took a step forward and was tested out by five US marines in a training exercise in Hawaii. The robotic mule can traverse rough terrain while carrying much of the Marine’s load. That means less fatigue for the men and women on the battlefield, but the robot doesn’t have much stealth. It’s loud gasoline powered engine lends itself to be used for logistical operations rather than tactical ones.

Best robots 2014: iBotlr

If you check in to one Silicon Valley hotel you might just end up with a robotic butler.The robot bellhop is being tested at one hotel that may be expanded if successful.

So a guest would call down and maybe they need a razor or toothbrush, toothpaste, etc. and the associate at the front desk will be able to send the robot. In our case called the botlr, up to the guest room to deliver that amenity.

Called Botlr (BOT-ler), it uses Wifi to call elevators and request the floor it needs to go to. The robot travels at about two miles an hour and can carry up to 10 lbs. Botlr can last up to 4 hours on a full battery charge and goes into a charging station in between runs.

If robots were to take over the world, they’d need to first master ping pong. But this robot from Omron wasn't made to beat humans, but to play along with them. The object here is to get a good volley going. The robot uses computer vision and algorithms to figure out where the ball will end up and positions its paddle accordingly. In tests according to the company, the nearly 3 meter tall robot could volley the ball 100 times without missing. This robot won’t be commercialized, but some of the technology is already found in factory robots.

And that's our 2014 Robot Review. 

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