Robotics year in review: Top 10 stories of 2012

26 December 2012

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The past year was a watershed moment for robotics. From defense to exploration, startups to legislation, we saw products, laws, and investments that have shifted robotics out of the lab and into our lives. They have built on decades of basic and applied research, taking advantage of plummeting component costs and maturing core technologies such as batteries and communications. Below are the top 10 stories of 2012. And choosing only 10 from so many successes, research, and new products was extremely difficult. Perhaps that’s really the best story of the year.

10. Robot and Frank Film looks toward elderly care future

Among films like Real Steel and I, Robot, Robot & Frank emerged from the Sundance Film Festival as a refreshing film that offered roboticists a realistic vision for robots in elderly care.

9. First robotics ethics and law conference

The University of Miami School of Law hosted the first conferenceon legal and policy issues relating to robotics, a sign of things to come as unique enable robotics technologies raise new philosophical and legal concerns for lawyers and policymakers.

8. Baxter brings manufacturing robotics to small businesses

For four years, Rodney Brooks’ Heartland Robotics (now called Rethink Robotics) remained in stealth mode as many wondered what the acclaimed researcher and iRobot co-founder was plotting for the “manufacturing” domain. Finally, we met Baxter, a two-armed robot that can be programmed by demonstration to perform pick-and-place tasks. But it’s the small $20,000 price tag that is turning heads.

7. Amazon acquires Kiva for $775M

Amazon shocked the robotics world with its $775 million acquisition of Kiva Systems, maker of the automated warehouse logistics robots. It may not be a price we’ll see again any time soon, but the purchase signals a maturation of mobile robots that have become an integral part of business logistics.

6. Robonaut, Curiosity pave the way in space, WAVE glider robot traverses Pacific

With recent news in Washington considering the future of NASA, 2012 was a great year for the agency’s robotics program. First, Robonaut aboard the International Space Station began the year with an iconic handshake with the ISS commander. Since then, it has performed a variety of tasks in flipping switches, turning knobs, and grabbing handrails. b. Of course there was the “terrifying” Mars landing of the Curiosity rover in July. Armed with an arsenal of tools and laboratory equipment, Curiosity is turning out to be a successful robotic explorer. And just this month we learned that an autonomous wave glider robot from Liquid Robotics completed its one-year, 9000-mile Pacific voyage from California to Australia.

5. U.S. Government flexes muscle with DARPA ROBOTICS challenge and NRI

Back in 2004 when DARPA announced its first Grand Challenge in robotics, a reliable driverless car was a dream. Now, well, see the #4 story of the year below. The blue sky agency is at it again with the Robotics Challenge, a $34 million effort with the goal of producing a capable humanoid robot for disaster response scenarios. An added innovation to the challenge is an open-source simulator being developed by the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF), which will serve as a contribution to the community but also permit a software-only team to earn a humanoid hardware platform and advance to the second phase of the challenge.

A year after the Obama Administration announced the National Robotics Initiative, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $50 million in funding toward collaborative robots. While the amount is small compared to programs in Europe, Japan, and South Korea, the NRI is the first coordinated research funding focus in the U.S. for non-military robotic applications. For that, U.S. efforts come in at number five.

4. Driverless car legislation becomes law

The Google self-driving car has racked up 300,000 miles on the road as California, Florida and Nevada (last year) passed legislation setting up the procedures and requirements that will be needed for commercial driverless products. Several others, including D.C., are reviewing bills. With car manufacturers now introducing advanced sensors and increasing autonomy features in upcoming models, the legislation is ahead of the technological curve for once.

3. ROS turns 5

The Robot Operating System from Willow Garage. There’s not much more to say than I already have in previous posts. But a five-year anniversary for an open-source robotics software framework that continues to grow is a significant achievement. How fast has it grown? According to Tully Foote’s blog post at, there are 3699 public ROS packages (up from 1600 three years ago), 90 community-supported robot platforms (up from 50), and people are using ROS on all seven (yes, seven) continents. The recently launched Open Source Robotics Foundation is also a good sign for a sustainable movement.

2. Maker and start-up culture pushes robotics

In the same year that the iRobot Roomba celebrated 10 years on the market, we saw an acceleration of viable robotics businesses and products. For years many said that venture capitalists wanted nothing to do with hardware startups; they were too risky and required upfront capital, manufacturing, and inventory. That has clearly changed now, with increasing investments in robotics startups and entrepreneurs figuring out how to create products and solutions using robotics technology. The prestigious Y Combinator program funded Double Robotics and their price-shattering telepresence robot. Dmitry Grishin, a Russian investor, launched Grishin Robotics with $25 million of his own funds to invest in personal robotics companies. As of this writing, he’s invested in Double and the RobotAppStore. Furthermore, The Robot Report’s detailed map of nearly 1000 companies indicates 173 startups, 89 in the U.S. alone (not including many others still in stealth mode). And lest we forget the crowdfunding movement, which has spawned several robotics products and dozens more related “Internet of Things” devices. Some of our favorites: Romo, Hexy the Hexapod, OpenROV, and Autom.

Feeding into this hardware movement has been the growing maker culture, with a combination of 3D printers, hacker spaces, and inexpensive microcontrollers like the Arduino reducing the barrier to tinkering, building, and experimenting. Similarly, the Do-It-Yourself drone community has taken off with Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson leaving his post to take over 3D Robotics full-time.

1. Drones take center stage

It seems a week didn’t go by without a major story involving unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as they continue to be used in warzones in Afghanistan and shadow campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, and the horn of Africa. Regardless of the ethics, sovereignty concerns, and the like, drones have saturated the national discourse and are here to stay on the battlefield, and there is little doubt we will begin to see remote-controlled and semi-autonomous UAVs in domestic surveillance and commercial applications as soon as 2015 in the United States. For these reasons, they take the number one spot.

Have another top story we didn’t list? We’d love to hear them! Let us know in the comments section.

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David Pietrocola is a robotics engineer and CEO of Lifebotics LLC. He writes regularly on robotics policy, news, and events.
David Pietrocola is a robotics engineer and CEO of Lifebotics LLC. He writes regularly on robotics policy, news, and events.

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