In many ways, the sporting life represents one of the "final frontiers" for the robotics world. When we think of athletics, the first things that come to mind are the very human figures at the pinnacle of athleticism and achievement: Steph Curry, LeBron James, Mike Trout, Connor McDavid, Serena Williams, Sabrina Ionescu. Robots, however, are steadily creeping into the sporting world, appearing in every major sport in new, creative, and interesting ways.
At one time, technology in sports meant instant replays, in/out calls in tennis, and a "painted" first down line in the middle of football games. Now, robots are helping in a myriad of jaw-dropping ways. Let's take a tour of some of those ways to go from practice to actual performance in this spotlight series.
First, how about a nice game of Ping Pong? Yes, the sport Forrest Gump once dominated has a new competitor— the Omron Forpheous automated Ping Pong machine. Check out this video from the CES 2019 show, where Omron faces off against a competitor (and does a pretty good job).
Ping Pong's cousin, badminton, also has some breakthrough robotic developments. In this video clip from the University of Tokyo, a humanoid-like robot puts on one impressive badminton display. How awesome is that? That's taking that fun little game you played in your grandmother's backyard to a whole new level.
How about gymnastics? Well, Boston Dynamics is making a lot of strides in this area (no pun intended). Their Atlas robot is a tumbling, gymnastics marvel that can make plenty of moves that would get it high marks from every judge. Also, the Disney Imagineeering Stuntronics robot is an athletic, autonomous "stunt double" perfect for a Hollywood future.
The "Sweet Science" of boxing and martial arts is also welcoming robots for its activities. Check out this article on the Digital Trends site and this one on New Atlas about RTX-1, "the robot punching bag that punches back."
Let's go to winter sports next! Robots might have an advantage here right at the start — they don't need to bundle up in heavy coats or mittens to go out in the ice or the snow. In the very last Winter Olympics (Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018), we saw the world's very first robot ski tournament. Check out the coverage here on YouTube and The Verge.
The other high-profile Winter Olympics sports also featured some robotic involvement; take a look at this video and this article about a Swiss robot that taught itself how to ice skate and play hockey.
Robots are also helping athletes train in gridiron football. To combat the concussion epidemic, the MVP Robotics tackling dummy replicates the movements of football players for practice — saving tons of stress on players' bodies. Read all about it in Digital Trends. Another piece of fascinating technology that helped football players during the pandemic? This robotic quarterback, allowing receivers to catch passes during COVID-19.
Elsewhere, robots help this Japanese volleyball team practice their attacks, and this robot has a pretty killer jump-and-hit motion for the sport. In basketball, this remarkable robot is a dead-eye three-point shooter; as a matter of fact, it is even more accurate than Steph Curry! Imagine the contract this robot could get.
Finally, there are the soccer-playing robots, part of the upcoming "Robocup" to take place June 22–28, 2021. The Robocup is an all-robot athletic competition, held around the globe; the goal, per the Robocup website, is to create "a vehicle to promote robotics and AI research, by offering a publicly appealing, but formidable challenge." That challenge? To eventually create an all-robotic team of humanoid soccer players to take on the World Cup champions.
Cool, right? Until that time, the current Robocup includes games of soccer, "rescue," and other sports to show off the advancements in robotic athletics.
Would you tune in to something like this?
Most robots in sports currently assist or help humans practice rather than replace them; the robots performing actual sporting activities are for now showcased examples, proof of concepts, part of researches, etc. Apart from Robocup's competitions, there isn't any Robolympics yet. We're a long way off from robots totally replacing the sports we all know and love — but the time is coming when robots will be an essential part of professional sports. How far do you think they will go? Will we ever really warm up to the idea of all-robotic athletic activities, or is the human factor still too important for viewers? Finally, what kind of sports would you like to see robots influence? Is it time for robot umpires, finally?
So many questions about robots in sports! Let us know what you think about these new developments, and follow us to stay up to date on all the changes in the robotics field!