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History's 10 most influential robots

Elizabeth Fish | April 16, 2012
It wouldn't be right if GeekTech didn't do something for National Robotics Week, and if there is one thing this blog loves, it's robots. Robots are all around us, from the coffee machine in the kitchen at home, to the assembly lines in factories at work. But where did robots first come from? Which were the most significant in delivering the kind of machines we have today?

1962: The Unimate

In the 1960s, researchers put a lot of work into developing robotic arms, but one of the most important was The Unimate arm. It was one of the first industrial robots, and was fitted on General Motors' assembly line to reduce the likelihood of injuries and deaths on the production floor. The arm would stack pieces of hot die-cast metal and weld the parts to car bodies. Unimate is now listed in the Robot Hall of Fame with the likes of R2-D2 and HAL.

1966: Shakey the Robot

Shakey the Robot by SRI International was one of the first truly successful artificial intelligence robots. It was capable of understanding its own actions--that is, if you gave Shakey a task to complete, it could break down how to complete it by itself, unlike most other robots of the time, which needed specific instructions.

Shakey demonstrated its ability to think and then react by navigating itself around rooms and corridors, turning lights on and off, opening and closing doors, and pushing certain objects around. It is now happily retired and on display in Mountain View's Computer History Museum.

1989: Genghis

Ever wondered which robot was one of the first to walk properly? Check out Genghis. This six-legged autonomous bot by the Mobile Robots Group over at MIT Labs was not only known for its walking ability, but also for how quickly and cheaply it was produced. However, it did need four microprocessors, 22 sensors, and 12 servomotors to function.

The way it walked on its six legs also coined (and some other hexapod robots) the term "the Genghis Gait".

1997: NASA Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner

NASA, of course, has had its fair share of incredible robots, but one that really stands out is the Mars Pathfinder mission and its rover, Sojourner.

Its main purpose was to demonstrate the kind of technology required to send an efficient, free-ranging robot to Mars, but in a relatively cost-effective way. The Pathfinder managed to enter Mars's atmosphere with a parachute and airbags for protection, and the Sojourner sent plenty of useful data about the Red Planet back to Earth for later use.

What's more, both machines outlived their design's estimated life--the Pathfinder by three times, and the Sojourner by almost 12! Check out a full size replica of the Sojourner to see just how small it was.

1998: Lego Mindstorms

This wouldn't be a GeekTech feature without a bit of Lego. In all seriousness, though, Mindstorms kits, a series of Lego set that contain programmable software and hardware, were one of the cheapest and easiest ways for anyone to make their own robot. Mindstorms kits were inspired by Seymour Papert's book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas, in which the mathematician recommends the simple theory of learning by doing.


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