Top Robotics Stories of 2023

2023 was the best year ever for robotics. I say this every year, but every year it’s true, because the robotics field seems to be always poised on the edge of changing absolutely everything. Is 2024 going to be even better? Will it be the year where humanoids, or AI, or something else makes our lives amazing? Maybe! Who knows! But either way, it’ll be exciting, and we’ll be here as it happens.

As we look forward to 2024, here’s a look back at some of our most popular stories of 2023. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them!

Roombas at the End of the World

My favorite story to report and write in 2023 was this tale of the bizarre existence of the Roombas that live and work at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. A single picture that I spotted while casually browsing through the blog of a South Pole infrastructure engineer took me down a crazy rabbit hole of Antarctic hijinks, where a small number of humans relied on some robot vacuums to help keep themselves sane in the most isolated place on Earth.

This Robot Could Be the Key to Empowering People With Disabilities

This story about Henry and Jane Evans, Willow Garage, and Hello Robot beautifully tied together something like a decade and a half of my history as a robotics journalist. I got to know the folks at Willow early on in my career, and saw the PR2 doing some amazing work, including with Henry and Jane. But the PR2 was never going to be a practical robot for anyone, and it took the talent and passion of Hello Robot to design the hardware and software to make PR2’s promises into something real-world useful.

What Flight 50 Means for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is currently looking forward to its 70th flight, which is astonishing for a technology demo that was only really expected to fly five times. Arguably, this little helicopter is one of the most extreme autonomous systems that humans have ever built. I’ve written a bunch about Ginny over the last few years and talked to several different members of her team. But Flight 50 was a special milestone, and in this interview, Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos talks about why.

It’s Totally Fine for Humanoid Robots to Fall Down

We’re going to be seeing a lot more robots walking around over the next year, and that also means we’re going to be seeing a lot more robots failing to walk around in one way or another. Videos of robots falling tend to go crazy on social media, but most of the people who see them won’t have any idea about the underlying context. In this article, two of the companies with the most experience building humanoids (Boston Dynamics and Agility Robotics) explain why robots falling down is actually not a big deal at all.

Watch This Giant Chopstick Robot Handle Boxes With Ease

It’s not often that a robot is able to combine a truly novel design with an immediately practical commercial application, but Dextrous Robotics was able to do it with their giant chopstick box manipulator, and our readers certainly appreciated it. Boxes are a compelling near-term application for robots, but the go-to manipulation technique that we see over and over again is suction. Dextrous’ approach is totally unique, and it seems like a gimmick—until you see it in action.

Superhuman Speed: How Autonomous Drones Beat the Best Human Racers

Humans can do some pretty incredible things, and watching a human demonstrating some skill that they are the actual best in the world at is fascinating—especially if they’re at risk of losing that top spot to a robot. This race between world champion drone racers and autonomous drones from ETH Zurich took place in 2022, but I had to wait for the underlying research to be published before I was allowed to tell the whole story.

How Disney Packed Big Emotion Into a Little Robot

It’s refreshing to write about Disney’s robots, because somewhat uniquely, they’re designed for the primary purpose of bringing humans joy. Disney goes about this methodically, though, and we’re always excited to be able to share the research underlying everything that they do. These are some of my favorite stories to tell, where there’s a super cool robot that just gets cooler when the people behind it explain how it does what it does.

Stowing Is a “Beautiful Problem” That Amazon Is Solving With Robots

Robotics is full of problems that are hard, and one of those problems is stowing—the process of packing items into bins in a warehouse. Stowing is the opposite of picking, which is something that warehouse robots are getting pretty good at, but stowing is also much more difficult. “For me, it’s hard, but it’s not too hard,” Amazon senior manager of applied sciences Aaron Parness told us for this article. “It’s on the cutting edge of what’s feasible for robots, and it’s crazy fun to work on.”

Your Robotic Avatar Is Almost Ready

As much as we love robots, humans are still much, much better at a lot of stuff. One thing that humans are particularly bad at, though, is being physically present in far away places. The Avatar XPrize competition combined human brains with robot embodiments, and the results were honestly much better than expected. With the right hardware and the right interface, the competition showed that humans and robots can make a fantastic team.

All of the Humanoid Robots

And finally, our top robotics coverage area for 2023 was humanoid robots. Or, more specifically, humanoid robots that are (supposedly) poised to enter the labor force. The last time we had this much humanoid robot coverage was probably in 2015 surrounding the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals, and it’s not like there’s been a gradual increase or anything—humanoids just went absolutely bonkers in 2023, with something like a dozen companies developing human-scale bipedal robots with near-term commercial aspirations.