From autonomous drones, incredible AI genomes and even zero-emission cars fuelled by hydrogen, technology is changing and fast. Advances in robotics technology are making human–machine collaboration an everyday reality. Improved and cheaper sensory technology make a robot more able to “understand” and respond to its environment. Robot bodies are becoming more adaptive and flexible, dealing with a wide variety of temperature changes and hostile environments. This is not to mention robots are also becoming more connected, thanks to the cloud-computing revolution providing remote access options.

Robots are now increasingly involved in tasks and operations in a wide variety of sectors. In Japan, for example, robots are being trialed in nursing roles. Helping patients out of bed and supporting stroke victims in regaining control of their limbs are just some of the roles to which robots are suited. Smaller robots, such as Dexter Bot, Baxter and LBR iiwa, are designed to be easy to program and can handle manufacturing tasks that are often too laborious or uncomfortable for the human workforce.

It is thanks to robotics that many of the past decade’s greatest achievements have come about. Robots are no longer purely the stars of sci-fi movies. Robotics technology continues to help shape and develop the world in which we live today. Read on to find out more about five world-changing robots of the new millennium:

PackBot – 2001

After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre Towers in New York, it was PackBot who was able to go where firefighters, dogs and rescue teams just couldn’t reach.  “It was a watershed event,” Joe Dyer, chief operating officer of iRobot, maker of the PackBot, said of the robotic efforts involved in the rescue mission, as PackBot was able to determine the structural integrity of damaged buildings, take images and even search through rubble and debris for survivors.

In fact, PackBot has even gone on to be used by U.S. Military in Afghanistan to search buildings and remote areas for insurgents, and to investigate anti-personnel mines. The number of PackBots currently in use by the military has now exceeded 2,000. A favourite of the military and robotics developers alike, PackBot can climb obstacles, right itself, and increase its height to peer over small walls. It can also be carried in a backpack and can be submerged in water.

This amazing robot has starred in a music video and has even been recreated using lego.

Roomba – 2002

It’s the stuff dreams are made of… a robot that cleans your house. iRobot’s Roomba has changed the way we look at domestic chores. This disc-like robot will zoom around your house, vacuuming as it goes, before returning to its charging station by itself. The compact, automated cleaner has been a huge global success, with iRobot claiming to have sold 14 million ‘home robots’ worldwide. Fourteen years on and the technology is continuing to evolve. The 2015 ‘Roomba 980’ model includes cool features such as intelligent visual navigation and cloud connected app control. The Roomba is widely regarded as the first truly popular, and useful, home robot. 

KeepOn – 2007

After graduate student Marek Michalowski uploaded a film of KeepOn dancing to Spoon’s, “I Turn My Camera On”, a robotic star was born. KeepOn’s cute appearance and the catchy video saw it get over 2 million YouTube hits. Another music video later and KeepOn earned his place as a robotic star.

KeepOn was in fact designed to be an interactive toy for children with developmental disorders, including autism. He contains two built-in cameras behind his eyes, meaning that a doctor can observe interaction between patient and robot. His attractive appearance and big eyes mean KeepOn has been an instant hit, linking science and medicine. 

i-LIMB, the bionic hand – 2007

The i-LIMB Hand is the brand name of world’s first commercially available bionic hand, invented by David Gow and his team at the Bioengineering Centre of the Princess Margaret Rose Hospital in Edinburgh, and manufactured by Touch Bionics. This amazing hand is was both multi-articulating (each finger can make its own movements) and offers the user a power grip (for holding larger objects). In only one year, more than 200 patients had been fitted with i-LIMB hands.

The i-LIMB has gone on to change the lives of thousands of people affected by loss of their hands due to accidents or surgery. The i-LIMB is an example of pioneering robotics, meaning that holding a pen, using a knife and fork and even taking camera photos on a Smartphone are no longer difficult tasks.

Kirobo – 2013

While the above breakthroughs show the amazing practical possibilities robotic advances, recent years have seen increasing focus on how robots can help us on a more human and emotional level. In 2013 Kirobo, a tiny humanoid robot developed in Japan, was sent to the International Space Station to keep astronaut Koichi Wakata company. Kirobo was programmed to process questions and select words from its vocabulary to construct an answer, instead of giving pre-programmed responses to specific questions. And while the conversation was stilted at times, Kirobo opened up new possibilities and questions on the potential of robots to provide emotional support to humans.

An education in robotics

If you are inspired by the above robotic developments or think you could be the brains behind the next PackBot, there are many opportunities to combine an interest or talent in robotics with a school, college and even university education. Many institutions even offer robotics classes which you can complete alongside your studies. One of these institutions is Putnam Science Academy in the “quiet corner of Connecticut, New England”, U.S., offering a high quality education with special focus on engineering, mathematics and robotics.

At Putnam Science, robotics enthusiasts will feel right at home, as the school supports and encourages students to take part in this exciting offering. Students take part in the FIRST Tech Challenge, during which they have to build a mechanical robot capable of completing set tasks. Programming and construction is all done from scratch, while testing and inspiring the engineers of tomorrow.

Putnam Science regularly competes in the regional and super regional rounds of the First Tech Challenge, with the Putnam team winning the national round of the event in 2011.

Putnam Science Academy soon hopes to expand its robotics club into a robotics and engineering class, as part of the taught programmes on offer. Maths, coding and timed modelling are also part of the curriculum at Putnam, supporting and challenging inquisitive minds.

Robotics and maths aside, Putnam Science offers its students a well-rounded education, thanks to the school’s outstanding pastoral support and extra-curricular activities on offer outside of the classroom. Putnam is also home to a top-ranked basketball team. As many NBA stars start off at the prep school level, Putnam is an excellent option for academically minded students who also may possess the talent to be the sporting stars of tomorrow, looking to win a scholarship or gain acceptance at a top U.S. University.

Image courtesy of Putnam Science Academy