When the Cassini probe plunged into Saturn, its “death” left a 22-foot-long hole in our hearts. The probe, which had been traveling through the Saturn system for the last thirteen years, sent its final reports on September 15th before plunging into the atmosphere of the planet it had called home.
What made its death especially touching was that it had deliberately self-destructed so that it didn’t accidentally contaminate the potential life it had found on one of Saturn’s moons. If its important mission hadn’t endeared it to people, its self-sacrificial end certainly did, and people were left grieving a house-sized space probe as though it were a family pet; writing eulogies, drawing pictures, and holding parties in its honor.
But Cassini’s demise shines a spotlight on other adorable robots doing important work right here on Earth. From furry therapy “animals” to tiny, swarming robobugs that can fix problems deep in the human body, Cassini’s cousins are carrying on its legacy, making the Earth a better place (and lookin’ really cute doing it)!
1. VYO: Vyo is billed as a “personal assistant,” allowing you to “talk” to your smart home, but it’s really more like an adorable, intelligent pet. To put Vyo in charge of a device, you put a little object on Vyo’s control panel to enable it to “talk” to the device. When it starts having problems with a device, it “breathes” and swivels its head to signal distress. I don’t know if it’s serving its intended purpose because all I want to do is hug it better.
2. Seal Of Approval: Not everyone can find the cuteness in an eight-legged robotic monster, but pretty much everyone will love PARO’s plush, furry design. PARO is meant to comfort people in a way like a therapy animal while reducing the difficulties of actually owning an animal (no allergies, poop, or torn curtains), and has been found to be especially soothing to patients with dementia.
3. These Are The Droids You’re Looking For: For anyone who loved BB-8 in the latest Star Wars trilogy, Kuri is about as close as you can get without traveling to a galaxy far, away. This cute little robot can self-charge, play music, follow you around the house and smile with its eyes, and it communicates through chirps and beeps. No word yet on whether it can carry interstellar maps that lead to famous Jedi!
4. Who’s A Good….Boy?: This little robot dog (and yes, it’s actually named “Spot”) can run, climb stairs and keep its balance in the service of its greater goal – delivering packages! It’s still in development, but currently, it’s been able to deliver packages to people’s doorsteps about 70% of the time.
5. Ants in your Plants: SRI International’s newest venture, the MicroFactory, is a tiny, robotic “ant colony,” where thousands of tiny robots “swarm” to complete jobs together. They all have different tools (called the “end effectors”) that allow them to complete different parts of the task. The hope is that one day they might be able to work alongside 3D printers in factories, building structures out of the raw components the printers create!
6. ATHLETE: If you miss Cassini so desperately that only another space-bot can fill the hole its absence leaves, the adorably-named ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer) might become your new fave. The six-legged prototype is being designed to stride across the surface of the moon, disregarding difficult-to-navigate lunar dust and rocket terrain.
When complete, this robot should be able to interface with devices like refueling stations and excavation implements, keeping permanent installations going. While this explorer’s mission may not be quite as glamorous as Cassini’s, the six-legged guy has already spider-walked its way into people’s hearts!
7. In The Blood: While some robots explore outer space, others explore inner space. “Microbots,” or robots smaller than a centimeter across, have begun mapping the inside of the human body. The “Robot Pill,” a tiny capsule with a magnet and a camera, is used to help scientists screen for cancers from inside the body, and the “Plaque Buster” is set loose in the bloodstream to scrape plaque off the walls of arteries.