12 most memorable robotics moments of 2021

The Robot Report

The robotics industry had its fair share of ups and downs and memorable moments in 2021. Here is a look back at our picks for the 12 most memorable robotics moments of the year.

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What moments did we miss? Please let us know in the comments what you’ll remember most from 2021.


12. Elon Musk introduces Tesla Bot

Go ahead, bash me for including this one on the list. It made the cut because of how embarrassing the unveiling was, not because I believe Tesla Bot will ever see the light of day or ever pick up my groceries.

Instead of having anything remotely resembling a prototype at Tesla’s AI Day, Elon Musk had a human dressed in a Tesla Bot costume perform a bizarre dance on stage. Lame? Yes. Memorable? No doubt.


11. Indy Autonomous Challenge

Autonomous racecars zooming around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at nearly 140 MPH? Count me in. TUM Autonomous Motorsport from the Technische Universität München won the Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC) and discussed it on The Robot Report Podcast. It recorded the fastest 2-lap average speed of 135.944 MPH.

All of the cars shared the exact same chassis, engine and body design. The cars all shared the same autonomous driving technology, including LiDAR, RADAR, vision cameras, IMS and GPS sensor package. At the heart of the vehicles were top of the line Cisco routers (for routing all of the signals on-board) and an ADLINK Technologies AVA edge AI autonomous racing computer. The cars all shared a similar software stack built on top of the Robot Operating System (ROS). The most difficult problem was designing the racing algorithms that allowed the sensor fusion and input processing to be done in real-time while the car was moving at high speeds.

The IAC is running a competition at CES 2022 in Las Vegas. This time the event will feature head-to-head autonomous racecar competition, featuring 9 teams comprised of 19 universities from 8 countries.


10. Toyota’s basketball-playing robot

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It’s certainly no Steph Curry, but Toyota’s basketball-playing robot, CUE, stole the spotlight at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The 6-foot-10-inch tall robot sank a series of three-pointers and a half-court shot during halftime of the Men’s Preliminary Round Group B game between the U.S. and France on July 25. CUE uses sensors on its torso to calculate the distance to the hoop and the angle of the basket, before using its motorized arms and knees to shoot.

Later on during the Olympics, CUE actually became less accurate and started missing shots. But Toyota took the robot back to its lab and added to its repertoire. CUE can now dribble a basketball, as you can see in the video below. Its handles aren’t quite on par with Luka Doncic just yet, but impressive nonetheless.

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9. Cruise’s first robotaxi ride in SF

It’s been a long time coming for Cruise, the San Francisco-based developer of autonomous driving technology. It’s been working on autonomous vehicles since it was founded in 2013 and acquired by GM in 2016. On November 3, 2021, Cruise released two videos showing its first fully driverless robotaxi ride around San Francisco. And the passenger was none other than Cruise co-founder, CTO and president Kyle Vogt.

The videos show both Vogt enjoying the ride in the backseat and the data captured by the car’s sensor stack. It’s a great visualization of the hectic driving environment autonomous vehicles have to navigate in SF, even when driving at 11:30 PM. Cruise received a permit to offer robotaxi rides to public passengers in California. The permit allows Cruise to operate its robotaxis between 10 PM and 6 AM, presumably when there is less traffic in the city.


8. First demo of MassRobotics Interoperability Standard

If you think there was a lot of interoperability talk in 2021, just wait for 2022! Editor Mike Oitzman captured the first public demo of MassRobotics’ interoperability standard. The demo was organized by FedEx and took place at the FedEx DART Lab, where FedEx evaluates new logistics automation solutions.

The companies involved in the demonstration were Vecna Robotics, Waypoint Robotics and WiBotic. What’s brilliant about the demo is it hides complexities involved and erodes the position of proprietary information taken by many autonomous mobile robot vendors. You can read more about the demo here.


7. Atlas performs parkour

Boston Dynamics’ Atlas is the most advanced humanoid on the planet. That’s never really been an argument, but it’s indisputable after a video released in August 2021 that showed two Atlas robots nailing a parkour routine. You can watch the video above. It’s unbelievable.

The robots run, jump, and perform simultaneous, double backflips. All those maneuvers already seem ho-hum for Atlas, which speaks to the incredible talent of the people behind the scenes. Perhaps the most impressive moment starts around the 0:35 mark. One of the Atlas robots performs a one-handed vault over the balance beam and then hops onto a raised platform. It appears to catch its balance as it lands on the platform.

Boston Dynamics also wrote a story detailing how it makes Atlas run, flip and vault.


6. Intel RealSense fiasco

Intel RealSense shutdown

Will Intel continue or discontinue its line of RealSense stereo depth cameras? It’s a question we still don’t really have the answer to. The confusion was created in August 2021 when Intel announced, and then backtracked on, that it was winding down its RealSense business.

In September, Intel announced the end of life for the RealSense LiDAR, tracking and facial authentication products. At that time, it reiterated that it will “continue to sell the stereo products to current distribution customers.” The Robot Report will be keeping a close eye on this story in 2022.


5. Amazon underwhelms with Astro consumer robot

After years of rumors and leaks that Amazon was developing a consumer home robot, we finally laid eyes on Astro in September 2021. And, boy, was it disappointing. After nearly four years of development, nevermind the amount of money and manpower spent, Amazon built us an Echo Show on wheels.

Amazon said Astro can be used for a variety of things, including home monitoring, videoconferencing with family and friends, entertaining children, and all of the same features we’ve come to know and love from Alexa devices.

Astro evokes memories of Anki, Blue Frog Robotics, Jibo, and Mayfield Robotics and other failed consumer robots of years past. And at $1,449 a pop and with limited availability, Astro will likely suffer the same fate.


4. Waymo robotaxi confused by traffic cones

This certainly wasn’t the first time a robotaxi was confused by everyday road obstacles. And it won’t be the last, either. But it’s a good look at how far autonomous driving technology still has to go before it’ll be deployed at scale.

You can watch the full video from Joel Johnson above, but the interesting part starts around the 11-minute mark. The Waymo robotaxi needs to make a right turn onto a multi-lane main road, but the far right lane was closed off by orange construction cones. And, boy, did they confuse the vehicle.

After the planning system can’t figure out how to handle the situation, it calls for roadside assistance. A human was supposed to arrive in mere minutes to get the car unstuck. However, before the assistance arrived, the Waymo robotaxi pulled out into the road, only to stop again, this time blocking traffic.

The robotaxi got stuck two more times before the roadside assistance employee could actually get into the vehicle.

Johnson came onto The Robot Report Podcast to discuss the incident, as well as his many other positive experiences riding in Waymo robotaxis. You can listen to that episode here.


3. Boston Dynamics unveils Stretch robot for unloading trucks

Boston Dynamics is best known for its legged robots Atlas and Spot. But Boston Dynamics surprised everyone early in 2021 by unveiling Stretch, a robot that is the next generation of the Handle robot introduced in 2017.

Stretch doesn’t have legs, but it does have an omni-directional mobile base with four independently controlled wheels, a custom 7-DoF industrial robot arm that can lift up to 50 pounds, a custom suction gripper and much more.

Stretch is scheduled to go on sale in limited fashion in 2022. It will initially focus on truck unloading and later add palletizing to its repertoire. If Stretch can handle the high level of package diversity it’ll encounter, it could become Boston Dynamics’ most successful commercial robot as unloading trucks is major bottleneck in the supply chain business.

Kevin Blankespoor, VP of product engineering at Boston Dynamics, talked about Stretch on The Robot Report Podcast. He took us inside the development of the robot, describing the evolution of the product design, the many system integration challenges, plans to improve the Pick vision system going forward, similarities between Atlas, Spot and Stretch, and much more. You can listen to that episode here.


2. Ingenuity Helicopter completes first flight on Mars

NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter completed its initial flight on Mars earlier on April 19, 2021. This marked the first-ever powered, controlled flight on another planet. The $80 million, solar-powered helicopter first became airborne at 3:34 a.m. EDT and climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of 10 feet. It hovered in the air for 30 seconds before descending back to the surface of Mars. It was in the air for a total of 39.1 seconds. You can re-watch the flight above.


1. Perseverance Rover lands on Mars

This has to be the top moment of 2021, right? NASA’s Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter landed on Mars on February 18, 2021 at around 3:55 PM ET. Launched at the end of July 2020, Perseverance traveled 292.5 million miles from Earth to Mars. You can re-watch NASA’s live stream of the landing in the video above. The landing happens at about the 1:40:40 mark.

The rover has been exploring Mars for microfossils in the rocks and soil. In September, the rover cored its first rock sample. NASA is now working on a system to bring those rock samples back to Earth. This mission is expected to take a decade of work. An incredible engineering feat by all involved that is already changing the future of space exploration.

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