Robots’ abilities to recognise and manipulate things are improving

What the hell is that?!

A TRACKED ROBOT approaches a pile of brushwood blocking its path. This is RoMan, short for Robot Manipulator, and it is practising for what is, in effect, its graduation ceremony, on October 17th, when it will show off its skills to a group of American army top brass in a so-called capstone demo at Carnegie-Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. After a pause for thought, it reaches out an arm, takes hold of a branch, lifts it up and drags it clear. Though this is a trivial action for a human being, it is a breakthrough for robots, according to Stuart Young of the Army Research Laboratory (ARL), in Adelphi, Maryland, who is in charge of the RoMan project. And it has implications for the future of robotics.

As anyone with a Roomba cleanerbot knows, robots easily become confused by something unexpected, like a piece of furniture in the wrong place. A barricade can be made of many objects, some unfamiliar, and none with convenient handles. Taking it apart is far beyond the capability of any industrial robot.

Progress in automated manipulation of this sort has been slow. Amazon, a large e-commerce firm, ran a “pick and place” challenge for three years, with teams of roboteers…