Despite the altogether likely Robot Apocalypse that’s looming, it’s fun to pretend that we — the humans — are in control of the machines. As robotics bleed further into the mainstream with autonomous cars and low-cost Arduino kits, we’re seeing an influx of laboratories designed to incubate ever more astonishing things. Though most sit on the campuses of universities, many technology firms are investing in labs of their own. Below, we’ve rounded up five that are changing the world in the here and now. Enjoy, and keep your head on a swivel.
Photo: Boston Dynamics
Made famous for its work on BigDog, a military-use quadruped robot, Boston Dynamics was acquired by Google in late 2013. The lab has primarily impressed with its walking robots designed for battlefield use, and many consider these to be among the most advanced on the planet. Google’s ownership has raised a few eyebrows, as the company is being tight-lipped about what it’s planning to do with the newly acquired brain power.
Contracts and Major Developments: Created BigDog for the US Military through DARPA funding. Purchased by Google in 2013. In 2015, prototypes of Atlas — a two-legged humanoid — emerged.
Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Photo: Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Stanford’s AI Lab began way back in 1963, and is recognized as the home of the WAITS operating system. It has moved, shut down, and reopened a few times over the years, though its latest resurgence in 2004 has led to a mission to “change the way we understand the world.” Given its location, SAIL has sent many of its alumni to companies we’ve all heard of, including Cisco and Sun Microsystems.
Contracts and Major Developments: In September, Stanford and Toyota founded SAIL-Toyota Center for AI Research, which will largely focus on autonomous vehicle development. More broadly, the AI Lab sees startups from the StartX accelerator roll through whenever a given company is targeting AI.
Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center
Photo: Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center
NREC spun up in the mid-1990s, aided by a $3 million grant from NASA. Shortly after its founding, it developed the Pioneer system for Chernobyl disaster response, and has more recently produced cleaning robots, vision systems, and other off-the-wall contraptions for the US Military.
Contracts and Major Developments: NREC receives funding in order to produce research and robots for DARPA, the Department of Transportation, NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory. They also partnered with Oshkosh Defense to create autonomous unmanned ground vehicles used to transport just about anything through environments that would be inhospitable or dangerous to human life. And, they’ve been working with Uber to do “research and development, primarily in the areas of mapping and vehicle safety and autonomy technology.”
Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory
Photo: Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory
While many labs are striving to create machines that think for themselves, this one is obsessed with concocting robotic contraptions that make humans stronger, faster and more capable.
Contracts and Major Developments: Ekso Bionics was founded within the lab in 2005, going on to launch the ExoHiker and ExoClimber exoskeletons used in dozens of rehabilitation centers around the globe. They also entered into a licensing and development pact with Lockheed Martin in 2009, furthering development of the Human Universal Load Carrier.
New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation Center
Photo: New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation Center
Opened in 2013 on the campus of University of Massachusetts Lowell, this robotics testing facility is poised to bring plenty of tech-focused companies in to test their robots on a variety of surfaces. Prior to its opening, robotics firms in the region — which number nearly 200 — had to travel to Maryland or Texas to find similar proving grounds.
Contracts and Major Developments: iRobot became the first company to join the NERVE Center in order to test its flotilla of home-based service bots. Last year, NERVE received funding from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to “begin research and development of test methods for autonomous robots in manufacturing environments.”