The X-47B
The X-47B. Douglas Sonders

In 2012, robotic technology made some huge leaps forward. We put the world’s most sophisticated planetary rover on Mars using a daring–and precise–robotic delivery system. We launched marine robots capable of taking on hurricanes and rebuilding damaged coral reefs. We saw four-legged robots set new land speed records, and winged, autonomous robots strut their potentially lethal stuff on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

We see this kind of improvement in robotic capabilities each year–indicative of just how much momentum the robotics revolution has gained in the opening stretch of the 21st century. Click through the gallery below to take a spin through the past year in robotics–which you can also think of as a spin through the future.

Click to launch the photo gallery

Liquid Robotics’ Waveglider Has One Hell Of A Year

We’ve long been fans of the self-sustaining, wave-powered Waveglider, a maritime robot that can harvest propulsion energy from the rolling motion of ocean waves to operate far from shores indefinitely–or at least until something breaks down. Durability, then, is key to Waveglider’s seafaring success, and this this year it proved its hardiness several times over. First, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began custom-fitting the Waveglider to be a long-endurance weather monitoring platform capable of staying at sea for many months at a time to intercept hurricanes and other storms gathering far from shore–a major vote of confidence for the technology. Then we learned in early November that one of NOAA’s Wavegliders had deployed (and survived) off the coast of New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy, withstanding the full brunt of her destructive power as she came ashore (while beaming reams of valuable data to meteorologist back onshore). And finally, we learned that the first of four Wavegliders that set off from San Francisco last year on a trans-Pacific crossing had reached Australia, proving these robots are ready for long-duration science missions at sea with virtually no human help or interference. All said, Waveglider had one seriously good year.

Skycrane Is Go, And Curiosity Has Landed

The landing of Mars Rover Curiosity on the Red Planet back in August was an incredible robotic feat. Never before has NASA or anyone else sent such a robust scientific platform to another world–a rolling robotic geology lab designed to conduct interplanetary science at unprecedented resolutions. But just as impressive was the way NASA placed Curiosity on Mars’s surface. Most Mars landers use airbag cushions to prevent damage during touch-down. Curiosity was too heavy for that, so scientists designed a fully automated robotic sky crane to lower Curiosity using three nylon tethers from a thruster-powered platform to the Martian surface. As we know now, the crane worked flawlessly–writing a new chapter for NASA’s robotic capability playbook.

Robots Will Rebuild Damaged Scottish Coral Reefs

In a demonstration of the idea that technology really might be able to save us after all, a research project at Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University is developing swarms of autonomous underwater robots capable of repairing Scotland’s damaged coral reefs. The robots would blend computer vision technologies (to aid the robots in distinguishing between reef and other undersea objects like sponges) and autonomous swarm behaviors that would allow them to work independently but also as a single multi-unit organism to repair and rebuild reefs damaged by fishing activities, shaving years off the time it can take these natural aquatic habitats to recover on their own. Right now the project is still very young, but it demonstrates the huge potential autonomous robots could have in the future in helping humans monitor, mitigate, and repair damage our activities cause to the natural world.

Quadrotors Light Up Cannes

One of our favorite moments in robotics came neither from a research lab nor a major robotics maker, but from an advertising awards gala on the French Riviera. At the 2012 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity–a lavish ad industry get-together in which advertising people honor other advertising people for being great at advertising–creative house Saatchi & Saatchi chose to bring the house down at its annual New Directors Showcase via a psychedelic light show made possible by a swarm of precisely programmed quadrotor drones (video here). Hardware and software for the show was provided by Philadelphia-based KMel Robotics, a startup founded by University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab grads Alex Kushleyev and Daniel Mellinger. Titled Meet Your Creator, the show consisted of a glowing pyramid and 16 quadrotors carefully beaming and reflecting light around a darkened auditorium to a soundtrack of Brooklyn’s Oneohtrix Point Never.

Tacocopter Versus Burrito Bomber

We were as bummed as anyone to learn back in March that a Bay Area startup that surfaced on the Internet (where everything is usually true) offering drone-delivered tacos was a hoax. Or maybe not a hoax, but a dream that was not really going to be realized in the foreseeable future. Anyhow, it was disappointing given the fact that we at Popular Science love both unmanned aerial vehicles and carnitas. But it did make for a great viral story, and one that would soon have competition. Small-but-awesome research lab Darwin Aerospace unveiled its own Burrito Bomber in early December–that’s a fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle capable of para-dropping heavy carne asada payloads directly to a location based on GPS data generated by a smartphone app (the idea being that you use the app to order the burrito and then it comes to where you are, just like tacocopter would have if it hadn’t been a cruel Cali-Mex-based joke). While neither concept operates commercially, rest assured robotic food delivery is on the horizon. In 2012 we caught our first glimpse of that scrumptious UAV-enabled future.

Cheetah Sets Land Speed Record, Then Breaks Land Speed Record

It was back in early 2011 that we first heard the Department of Defense robotics wonks at DARPA had commissioned Boston Dynamics to build the fastest legged robot in the world, a quadruped ‘bot known as Cheetah that would be modeled on the animal of the same name. But it wasn’t until March of this year that we got to see the concept in action when DARPA released a video of Cheetah on a treadmill setting a new land speed record for legged robots at 18 miles per hour. Then in September it did it again, recording a top speed of 28.3 miles per hour–a speed that, as far as we know, still stands as the land speed record to beat for a legged robot (or a human; Usain Bolt’s peak speed during the 100-meter is 27.78 miles per hour). In 2013, Boston Dynamics plans to let the Cheetah run wild–outdoors and untethered from its current fixed power source, that is. More on this as it develops.

The X-47B Enters Flight Training

In 2012, Popular Science was granted unprecedented access to the Navy’s X-47B, a tailless, jet-powered, combat-ready autonomous unmanned aircraft designed to take off and land from the deck of an aircraft carrier. And since our February visit to the Navy’s Patuxent River proving ground the X-47B has come a very long way. After a summer of testing on the ground, the two demonstration aircraft have performed complete steam catapult launches from a terrestrial runway at Pax River and even the first carrier deck operations conducted with an X-47B aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman. That’s impressive on two fronts: First, because the X-47B is almost entirely autonomous, a combat jet aircraft that pilots itself based on orders programmed into its robot brain before flight and updated as the mission progresses. That makes it the most advanced autonomous combat system we’ve ever seen this far into development. But perhaps even more astounding, it’s a U.S. military combat jet development program that is running on schedule. A full carrier operations demonstration is slated for the first half of 2013, and it looks like the X-47B program is going to meet its deadline. Wonders never cease.