Belly on up to the robot bar and have yourself a drink.
You've probably noticed that your fellow pub patrons aren't the classiest bunch of bots ever to throw back a pint. Flecks of mud fall from their rusting limbs. There are more than a few corroded batteries in the bunch. But hey, this is a true working bot's hangout, where Bruce Springsteen plays on the jukebox and everybody knows your serial number.
These machines toil away at some of the dirtiest jobs in the world -- tasks that most humans don't even like to think about. You ready for a little meet and greet?
Hold onto that drink, partner, because you're about to get to know 10 of the hardest-working Mike Rowe-bots on the planet.
You don't like to think about it, I know, but all those toilets and drains in your life are just gateways to another world -- a dark, stench-choked realm where rivers of human waste traverse thousands of miles' worth of pipes.
But the pipe world isn't perfect. Lines break. Caked-on fats and oils steadily clog up the works. In the old days, human waste department workers had to dig up the affected pipe sections and diagnose the problem firsthand -- a task as expensive and time-consuming as it is gross.
That's where this guy comes in. Meet the Redzone Solo, a pint-sized sewer tank with a knack for navigating 8-12 inch (200-300 millimeter) diameter pipes. Old Solo works alongside a bunch of humans who send him down manholes to explore with his 360-degree digital vision, GPS and onboard intelligence for autonomous operation.
That's right, Solo's no mere mechanical pipe puppet -- he's a state-of-the-art sewer spelunker.
Enough war stories from the sewer bot. Let's move on to a battlefield you can relate to: your toilet. You've probably seen your share of Roomba vacuum cleaners in your time, but this is their cousin, the Scooba 230. Roughly the size of a personal pan pizza, this little guy is designed to squeeze in right next to the toilet tank to clean up all that splashed man-urine.
Working in 20 to 45 minute sessions, the Scooba 230 washes, scrubs and then squeegee vacuums up to 150 square feet (13.9 square meters) of bathroom. Manufacturer iRobot even claims this bot can mop up the harmful bacteria responsible for Staphylococcus aureus infections in two passes [source: iRobot].
Scooba 230 handles the floors, but the inside of the toilet bowl itself falls to you, the human -- at least for now. Some enterprising folks at Israel's Ariel University Center created a toilet-washing robot prototype that lives on the side of your commode. He looks the other way while you do your business, then hops to action when you leave, reaching in with a mechanical arm to brush out the bowl [source: Robot Magazine]. See, he's the one seated at the end of the bar, silently stirring his drink.
Let's keep mingling. You haven't even met all the poop-related bots.
You've met the bots that help keep our toilet systems clean and functioning, but this next gal will actually help you out in the bathroom. What's that? You say you don't need a robot to help you go potty? Just wait until you're older, sonny. Wait until you're all older.
The looming issue is especially prominent in Japan, where 65-year-olds already make up more than 22 percent of the population [source: UNC Institute on Aging]. To help relieve the burden of elderly care, technology companies like Toyota are prepping a future of mechanical caregivers.
Meet the Patient Transfer Assist robot. Sure, she may look like a cross between a Segway and a writing desk, but this mechanical powerhouse uses her wheels to move patients in and out of the bathroom and her weight-supporting arms to lower them down onto the toilet and back up again. Think of her as a kind of robot super-nurse, only one that works 24 hours a day and won't accidentally look you in the eyes while you're going number two.
If you think conversation might prove awkward with this robot, just wait until you meet the next one.
The next robot we're gonna meet truly is a little guy -- and believe me, that's a good thing. His creators at Japan's Ryukoku University and Osaka Medical College call him "The Mermaid," and he's programmed to swim up your butt.
The 2-inch (4.5-centimeter) long Mermaid (who looks more like a tadpole) is the world's first self-propelled endoscopy device, meaning he's designed to swim through a patient's digestive track and take photos along the way -- a task that aids doctors immensely in diagnosing everything from stomach ulcers to colon cancer.
He's no weakling either! While other endoscopic capsules depend on the patient's natural muscle contractions to move around in your intestines, the Mermaid uses motorized propulsion to swim around inside you. He can enter your digestive track at either end and can speed through the entire works in just a few hours -- as opposed to the 24-72 hours it takes a corned beef sandwich to travel the same road.
Normally, a doctor controls the Mermaid with a remote-control joystick, but right now he's just chilling in his favorite bar with his fellow hard-working robots.
You're going to love this next robot. He's an artist.
No offense, but this bot's "dirty job" is something you do every day of your life: He turns food into poop. Meet Cloaca, the digestion machine that does his business in some of the modern art world's finest galleries.
As you can see, Cloaca consists of six glass vats connected to each other with a system of tubes, pumps and wires. A hired chef feeds gourmet meals to one end of the mechanical installation, which blends it into a fine paste. Next, this pureed foodstuff travels through a series of acid and enzyme treatments that mimic the chemical digestion process of the human body. Finally, Cloaca excretes a dark, odorous lump of fecal-like matter onto a rotating tray.
It may all seem like pure nightmare fuel, but Cloaca (Latin for "sewer" and the preferred term for a bird's posterior orifice) is the dream child of Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye. The original robot troubled some art lovers at Belgium's Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp back in 2000, but Delvoye has since created several siblings for the infamous poop machine -- including a vertical model complete with a conveyor belt at the end.
Don't think of Cloaca as a nightmare but rather the realization of a dream. Sure, he's a tad gross, but humans have dreamed of pooping automatons since the 18th century [source: Wood]. Plus, the work continues at Bristol Robotics Laboratory's EcoBot program, where researchers develop robots capable of not only digesting organic matter, but also producing energy from the act.
Enough about Cloaca -- let's move on before "nature" calls again.
The next robot we're going to meet kind of looks like a cow's behind, chiefly because she exists solely to simulate the anatomy of a cow's rectum.
Invented by veterinarian and computer scientist Sarah Baillie of Bristol University's Veterinary School, the haptic cow is a high-tech teaching tool. See, in order to diagnose pregnancy or any number of infections, you're going to have to reach into the cow's rear end and palpate the animal's ovaries, stomach and uterus. As you might imagine, however, it's rather dark and cramped inside a cow, so veterinary schools have always faced a challenge in teaching proper palpation.
The haptic cow uses touch-feedback technology to simulate the internal organs of a female cow. Students can feel around inside the faux farm animal, check their hand position on a computer screen and hone their skills at bovine rectal examination.
The bovine robot first opened its rectum to students in 2003 at the University of Glasgow and now aids students at several British veterinary universities. Baillie also created a horse-based version called the Equine Colic Simulator, which several U.K. vet schools quickly reached for.
The next robot we're going to meet simulates part of the human anatomy.
Granted, most sperm donors manage to produce their specimens via good old-fashioned manual stimulation. For most males, you could say the act comes rather naturally. But if that doesn't work, there's always the sperm collector robot from China's Sanwe Medical Group.
This lovely pink-and-white robot is designed for "semen collection and premature ejaculation desensitization training," and carries out both tasks via a throbbing "sperm-collecting barrel" [source: Sanwe]. The patient merely inserts his penis into the machine, which simulates the human vagina while providing sexually arousing sights and sounds on a built-in LCD screen. The resulting ejaculate then flows into a semen-collection sheath.
This bot debuted at China's International Medical Equipment Fair in Shenzhen back in 2011, but hasn't quite taken the world by storm just yet. Give her time.
I can see this is awkward for you. Let's keep moving.
Meet Groundhog, Cave Crawler and Gemini-Scout.
Sure, they may look like souped-up, mud-caked four-wheelers, but these bad boys are certified mine explorers. See, mines -- especially abandoned mines -- are dangerous and dirty places, prone to cave-ins and bursts of searing, poisonous gases. Whether mapping the tunnels or searching for survivors, a rugged machine is often the best option for the job.
Groundhog is the eldest of the trio, developed by Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute to navigate unmapped mines with lasers. It successfully demonstrated these skills in 2003 by plunging into Pennsylvania's abandoned Mathies mine. The same researchers followed up on this success in 2007 with Cave Crawler, a smaller unit capable of autonomously exploring subterranean depths and testing for dangerous gases without a single tether to the surface world.
Then in 2011, Sandia National Labs unveiled Gemini-Scout, which could navigate sand pits, rubble piles, 45-degree climbs and depths of up to 18 inches (46 centimeters) of water in a lightless mine [source: Dillow]. Armored casings protect its electronics from explosions and prevent its circuitry from igniting flammable gases. It can even carry food and oxygen tanks to trapped miners.
The developers hope to send old Scout here to help during mine disasters around the world. To give first-time users a leg up on the technology, they've even based the bot's control system on the standard Xbox 360 remote.
The last two robots we're going to talk to are situated apart from all their fellow mechanoids. They enjoy their drinks in the shadows and keep to themselves, because their occupations are as ghoulish as they are necessary.
Meet Virtobot. She performs virtual autopsies at Switzerland's University of Bern's Institute of Forensic Medicine, as well the United States' Dover Air Force Base.
What does "virtual autopsy" mean? Why it means Virtobot leaves the bone saws and cadaver shears to the humans, relying instead on stereo cameras and a computerized tomography (CT) scanner. She records a corpse's external conditions with the cameras and maps its insides with the CT scanner. The result? A complete 3-D computer model of the deceased.
Oh look, she's checking you out right now. I can see you're feeling self-conscious, so let's meet one last patron at the robot bar.
The last Mike Rowe-bot on our list really has a bum rap. When Cyclone Power Technologies and Robotic Technologis Inc. first announced its Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR) project back in 2009, the media had a field day. Headlines full of corpse-munching battlefield robots spread across the Internet, despite the fact that EATR is actually a vegetarian.
Certainly, its makers always envisioned EATR as a robot capable of finding, ingesting and extracting energy from biomass in its surroundings. But they're quick to point out that such feasts would mostly consist of twigs, grass clippings and wood chips [source: RTI]. Despite the nasty reputation, this bot essentially mimics the fuel system of the common donkey: eat grass, transform into energy. Only instead of digesting biomass, EATR will burn it in a combustion chamber to generate power for its rugged wheels and vegetation-shredding limbs.
But who knows what the future may bring? Some Japanese museums depend on robotic systems to store and retrieve urns for visiting family members. Robots like Virtobot already assist in our mortuary duties. And while biomass-consuming robots are still a developing technology, the idea of corpse-based energy is nothing new. In 2011, Britain's Durham Crematorium even announced plans to install turbines in its burners to generate energy [source: Merchant].
So don't judge EATR too harshly, but there's no telling what his descendants will be like.
Death by robots and artificial intelligences has been happening since 1979, but scientists hope to fix that. Learn more at HowStuffWorks.
More Great Links
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- Dillow, Clay. "Sandia's Gemini-Scout: A Rescue Robot Optimized for Mining Disasters." Popular Science. Aug. 18, 2011. (Feb. 3, 2012) http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2011-08/sandias-gemini-scout-rescue-robot-optimized-mining-disasters
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- Robot Magazine. "Tiny Floor Washer Robot for Men 'spraying urine.'" April 16, 2011. (Feb. 2, 2012) http://www.robotmagazine.com/tiny-floor-washer-robot-for-men-%E2%80%9Cspraying-urine/
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