The “Terminator” movies gave us a glimpse of a robot future, and it was pretty scary. The real robots of the future, however, look nothing like Arnold Schwarzenegger. They look like bugs and belt buckles and boats. In fact, some of them are boats. But they do have one thing in common with the cyborg assassin: a considerable degree of autonomy, albeit benign.

National Geographic recently reported on some cool work being done by Robert Wood at Harvard’s Microrobotics Laboratory. Wood is developing “RoboBees” that not only fly, but fly autonomously — or they will very soon. When they get their wings, they’ll be able to aid humans in fields like medicine, agriculture and emergency services.   

For now they’re still tethered, and flying along a programmed path. But Wood has been developing new algorithms based on real insect behavior. So his RoboBees should eventually be able to swarm like the real things, flapping away unbound by anything on Earth, except the mathematized “instinct” they get from a computer.

Wood based his RoboBees on real insect designs. He’s keen to copy Mother Nature, he says, since she’s already done so much of the work. Her creatures are wonderfully adept, having been honed by eons of evolution. Mimicking an actual bee, Wood’s robot version is basically an insect-sized thorax, with wings that span just three centimeters. The whole thing weighs in right around 80 milligrams, or just under .003 ounces.

The possible applications for Woods’s RoboBees are all over the place, from search-and-rescue missions to crop pollination. But in order for them to reach their true potential, Wood says, they need to be inexpensive enough to be disposable. And that’s still a ways from happening.

buckle-like microrobot from SRI InternationalBuckle-bots that manufacture

Annjoe Wong-Foy, on the other hand, an engineer at SRI International, is developing micro-robots with a different purpose in mind, but a similar sort of autonomy. He’s working on magnetically steered mini-bots, which he thinks will eventually provide a better way to assemble electronic components and other small items.

His tick-sized robots look like tiny buckles, and are hardly more than shiny squares — magnetic platforms with wire arms. But they come alive when placed on a circuit-implanted surface, which magnetically moves them in various, very intricate patterns.           

And they can work with all kinds of materials — glass, wood and various bits of electronics. So far, they’ve succeeded in constructing a series of 30-centimeter towers assembled from carbon rods. But their tiny size and precise movements might one day revolutionize manufacturing, allowing complex things to be manufactured in small quantities more efficiently, and probably more cheaply.

Wong-Foy imagines thousands of mini-bots moving in choreographed synchronicity like ants (the robot-insect parallel is apparently rife) but building circuit-boards instead of ant-hills.

A swarm of Navy robo-boats

The Navy, too, is looking into autonomous robots. And recently, on Virginia’s James River, some of their brass gave a demonstration, showing how a swarm of small robo-boats — 13 for now, but eventually 20 or 30 — can work together to fend off an enemy. Watch the video below.

Unlike the drones that fly over Afghanistan and Somalia, these vessels are not only unmanned but unpiloted — or very nearly so. As Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, chief of the Office of Naval Research, explained to reporters, a maneuver that usually takes 40 people to carry out, now only requires one. That’s because Klunder’s autonomous swarm boats are able to sense other vessels — not only each other’s, but enemies’ as well. This allows them to execute complicated maneuvers based on “team behaviors,” with very little human guidance.

The Navy’s robo-boats were designed to mimic human thinking, namely the decision-making processes associated with the pre-frontal cortex. This allows them to devise different action-plans in response to rapidly-changing circumstances. Machines this “smart” will likely prove themselves versatile in a military that may cut back on manpower. When they come online next year, they should help out with things like interdiction, or the escorting and protecting of naval assets.

If the breadth of future possibilities for these autonomous military robots seems a little frightening, there’s perhaps a bit of solace in their unscary origin. The Navy’s robo-boats, it turns out, are actually just an adaptation of NASA’s Mars Rover — which was, after all, very cool … and entirely benign.

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Photo: SRI International

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