Are Robots The Athletes of The Future?

In the world of professional athletics, the incredible has become pedestrian. A quick look at any sports highlight reel will leave your jaw on the floor as human beings of incredible strength, skill, and agility throw themselves through the ringer in pursuit of a championship. But even the strongest, fastest, and most skilled of our species may have their work cut out for them.

On land and in water, through hoops and on bars, robots are the latest in the steady stream of hurdles our athletes must overcome. These specialized machines, developed with incredible sophistication and precision, have reached heights and speeds we mortals may never have dreamed of. But are they the athletes of the future? Do these cyborg competitors constitute a legitimate threat to our physical prowess?


Usain Bolt may stride effortlessly to world records, but the Cheetah robot, created by Boston Dynamics will have the Olympian in the weight room prior to the next summer games. The awkward but effective robot hits a maximum speed of 28.3 miles per hour, barely edging out Bolt's 100-meter dash speed of 27.78. For now, the threat is moot, thanks to its dependency on an external power supply, but Boston Dynamics' team plans to unleash the device in the wild, untethered and ready for action.

Not content with land dominance, the technical teams at Tokyo Institute of Technology have issued the challenge for water-bound athletes as well. Their bot, dubbed "Swumanoid", is modeled after a Japanese Olympic swimmer and stands at a less than intimidating 3 feet tall. But with the assistance of twenty computer-controlled, waterproof motors, the freestyle phenom has Michael Phelps in its sights. Though the servo-driven swimmer has some time to make up, currently moving three-times slower than the current world record for 100-meter freestyle, the project's participants believe it capable of halving that record in time.

Feats of Force

A look at the forearms of any NFL lineman will speak to their strength, but it's unlikely that even the 500-pound club can keep up with the M-2000iA. This muscular machine, developed by FANUC Robotics America, wowed audiences when it lifted a 2,550-pound train wheel, more than a Volkswagon Beetle, over its head. With blockers like that, any quarterback in the country would find time to pass.

The evolution of robotic capabilities is not limited to upper-body strength either. The Sand Flea, a four-wheeled device developed by Sandia National Labs, can leap up to 26 feet in the air with little effort. In addition to reaching heights that Olympic high jumpers could only dream of, the device has the ability to get back down again, which is of course useful for retrieving the spunky Sand Flea after a compelling demonstration.

Delicate Droids

While power is impressive, machines capable of incredible control take the cake; just ask ABB Robotics' computer-controlled employees. The machine maker's dexterous creations exercised an incredible level of precision when a demonstration saw them thread a nail between adjacent Fanta cans, in motion, to within a tolerance of 30-microns. This feat became extra impressive when the demonstration saw one arm holding a platform of cans thread a lower, moving platform of cans, while a top arm navigated the top-most pallet. If nothing else, the arms would be unbeatable at Operation.

But these bolted down machines pale in comparison to Atlas, Boston Dynamics' DARPA funded humanoid. The bot is not only capable of full, albeit slow, locomotion, but with actuated joints and stereovision, the bot can right itself when hit with a wrecking ball. Navigating stairs, balancing on beams, and not tripping over obstacles is impressive, but doing so at 330 pounds takes real coordination.

Should We Be Worried?

While each of these mechanisms displays an incredible acumen for its selected task, talent scouts will likely avoid technical colleges for the time being. In addition to the unpredictability of human playing fields and their changing rules, each of these specialized creations offers painful limitations that inhibit their inclusion. Suffice to say that, while Sand Flea's elevation beats MJ by a mile, there's a reason the retired basketball superstar's talents were so highly sought.

Dreams of an android super bowl are, for-better-or-worse, little more than that at the moment. But the increasing array of capabilities and technical sophistication of robotics leave doubt in no one's mind that, even should automatons usurp us on the playing field, our creativity and intelligence remain our greatest asset. Until Number 5 dons a jersey to match, the only steel at the NBA Finals will be in the nerves of its participants.

tagged with robots and humans, Engineering Trends, engineering innovations of 2013, robots