When you close your eyes and think “robot,” the image you see might be that of a helpful, humanoid automaton—be it C-3PO or the Jetsons’ Rosie. Today, robots are most definitely helping humans. But they usually don’t look like us, and they toil in some unexpected settings. From swifter delivery of essential medical supplies to more efficient recycling, these companies are putting robotics to work in ways that are as inventive as they are practical.


For accelerating the spread of its medical delivery drone network.

While e-commerce companies such as Amazon hype future plans to deliver consumer goods by drone,Zipline already deploying the technology for a more vital purpose: getting medical goods such as blood products and vaccines to far-flung hospitals that serve people who really need them. Capable of flying 100-mile round trips at up to 80 mph, the company’s drones have been literal lifesavers in Rwanda and Ghana. It will soon collaborate with Novant Health to perform deliveries in North Carolina.


For giving surgeons tiny robotic assistants

Boston-based Vicarious is melding virtual reality with miniaturized robotics to make surgery safer and more affordable. It’s creating a tiny robot—with cameras and human-proportioned arms—that can enter a patient’s abdomen through a small incision. A surgeon can then perform an operation using VR controls that re-create what the robot’s sensors see inside the body. Though development of the system is still underway, some of technology’s brightest minds have been impressed enough to become investors, including Bill Gates, Eric Schmidt, Marc Benioff, and Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang.


For joining forces with little Bits to reimagine STEAM education

Sphero is still most closely associated with its tiny programmable toy robots, including its namesake sphere and one modeled on Star Wars’ BB-8. In August 2019, it broadened its ambitions by acquiring littleBits, a pioneer in do-it-yourself kits that let kids create their own electronic projects. Between them, the two companies have already reached 35,000 teachers and 6 million students. Now, the new Sphero is turning its combined portfolio of products and lessons into a platform for teaching STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics). It’s working to bring its Computer Science Foundations curriculum to 1,000 school districts by the end of 2020.


For automating the tedious—but essential—task of retail inventory

Conducting inventory checks isn’t the favorite job of any retail employee—and it steals time from the more valuable moments they spend serving customers. Simbe’s Tally robots unhesitatingly take over the hard work, and have already roamed 25,000 miles of store aisles for merchants such as Giant Eagle grocers and Decathlon Sporting Goods. As of September 2019, Simbe had more than 50 robots in the field, a figure it expects to ramp up to as many as 25,000 by 2024.


For sending drones into danger to keep first responders safe

Service members and first responders willingly go into harm’s way to protect the rest of us. Shield AI’s mission is to protect these heroes via technology that can take over some of the most dangerous parts of their work. Its AI-powered Nova autonomous quadcopter can enter structures, explore them, and stream videos and maps to remote operators, providing essential intelligence without putting humans at unnecessary risk.


For building a better knee

Approximately 1.7 billion people worldwide suffer—or will suffer—from knee osteoarthritis. Roam is working to give them an alternative to expensive, invasive surgery in the form of a low-cost, lightweight exoskeleton—essentially, wearable robotics. The company is also applying its technology to knee and ankle exoskeletons for military use. In 2019, it launched a program to rent exoskeletons to skiers who’d just like to spend more time on the slopes with less pain.


For ushering in the future of bionics with its Open Source Leg

Researchers are developing robotic prostheses that could make life a lot more manageable for people who have also had a leg amputated. The Neurobionics Lab at the University of Michigan is speeding along such vital research with its Open Source Leg. Instead of having to create their own custom robotic limbs for research purposes, labs can adopt this open-source platform, which is 20% lighter than other designs and offers near-biological range of movement at the knee and ankle. It’s been embraced by scientists at institutions such as Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, and the University of Sydney.


For imbuing mini bots with maximum brainpower

On the most basic level, a robot or drone is an autonomous mobile computer, which means that chipmaking giant Intel has also plenty of relevant experience. Its research arm, Intel Labs, is developing “collaborative minibots”—small, AI-infused robots that can walk or fly into unknown spaces and collect valuable data as a team. Though they’re still an experimental project, the company envisions them leading to commercial products with an array of applications, from smart agriculture to search-and-rescue missions.


For teaching robots to identify and sort the recycling. How did AMP teach its robotic recycling system to efficiently sort waste-material streams? It used machine-learning algorithms to show its software millions of images of the items that its robots might come across as they separate recyclables also from landfill. The systems have gotten so good at their job that they can tell a Coke bottle from a Pepsi one. Installations such as a 14-robot system in Sarasota, Florida, help make recycling a cost-effective move that’s also good for the planet. 10. UBTECH ROBOTICS

For advancing the art of the humanoid service bot for retail environments

If there’s such a thing as a full-service purveyor of robots, it’s Shenzhen, China-based Ubtech. Its offerings are as accessible to consumers as its $50 Jimu build-it-yourself robot kits for kids. And they’re also as ambitious as Cruzr, an enterprise-grade, cloud-connected robot for use in retail stores, airports, banks, and other environments. Looking a little like a spotlight with arms and wheels, the gleaming white bot is already performing tasks such as providing directions and discounts to shoppers at EasyHome, China’s largest home-renovation chain.

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