The 1980s were great years for robot fans: from Terminators to Short Circuit’s Johnny 5, you couldn’t move for robots on cinema screens and on TV. But the most interesting robots weren’t fictional ones.
They were the ones in real laboratories, on factory floors and in many cases, on our kitchen tables or pottering around our kitchen floors. From exciting experiments to tantalising tech toys, these are the best real robots from the eighties.
While some researchers hoped to create truly artificially intelligent robots, Rodney Brooks and his team decided to try something else. Allen was based on “subsumption architecture”, which used sensors including Sonar to help the robot navigate around and react to its environment. Allen’s technology would be hugely influential in autonomous robotics.
Topo was amazing, and by the standards of the day it wasn’t too expensive either. Designed primarily for educators and hobbyists, Topo was programmable via the Apple II and would move around according to its program. It wasn’t technically a robot because it wasn’t aware of its surroundings – it didn’t have any sensors – but it was huge fun to program and there was even a version with text-to-speech that you could use to make it shout at your dad.
“Gemini can help you and your children prepare for the burgeoning field of robotics,” the blurb promised. “You can program the robot to tutor your children in most any subject, such as spelling, reading, history, music or math.” That was perhaps a little optimistic for what appeared to be a Speak And Spell glued to a bin, but the Gemini was a breakthrough in personal robotics thanks to not one but three on-board computers: one for its intelligence, one for controlling movement and avoiding obstacles, and a third for text-to-speech processing that meant it could respond to commands.
This is the first appearance for Tomy in our list but it won’t be the last: it made some of our favourite robotic toys, including the Armatron robot arm. There were two versions, one of which had a wired remote control, and both were designed to resemble the industrial robots that were beginning to appear on factory floors – although unlike those robots, Armatron had no automation and merely responded to user input.
Technically Big Trak was a 1979 product, but we got ours in 1980 and that's also when it hit the big time. A programmable robot truck, Big Trak could remember up to 16 commands and was really good at transporting cans of Coke around our living room floor. It was relaunched in 2010, and you can buy a brand new one today for about £33.
Dustbot was a Roomba long before there was such a thing as a Roomba. Another Tomy robot, Dustbot was a cheerful-looking thing with a built-in vacuum cleaner – a robotic first – and edge detection so it wouldn’t fall down stairs. By today’s standards Dustbot is incredibly primitive, but at the time it was impossibly futuristic.
The successor to the brilliantly named Shakey, Flakey was a research robot that was used to experiment with and demonstrate fuzzy logic and goal-oriented behaviour: thanks to its 12 sonar sensors, optical wheel encoders, video camera and range-finding laser it could analyse its environment and work out multiple ways to achieve its goals.
HERO, short for HealthKit Educational Robot, was the name for a range of educational robots that were supported until the mid-1990s. You could buy them ready-made or go for the much more fun and considerably less expensive kit option ($3,000 compared to $4,500 for a pre-built one), and while they were of limited practical use they were tons of fun to make and to program.
Honda E Series
The E Series was developed well into the 1990s, and with each successive model Honda got a step closer to making a fully realised autonomous robot that could walk, climb stairs and kill all humans. Er, maybe not that last one. The E Series’ DNA was obvious in the later, lovable ASIMO robot, but the entire project was kept secret until the early 1990s.
Like many robots of the era, Hubot resembled a small TV stuck to a kitchen bin – but what he lacked in looks he made up for in programmability. Hubot could remember the layout of rooms and navigate without bumping into walls, the TV bit was a real working TV and you could even get one with an Atari 2600 video game system built-in.
Could any name be more 80s than Maxx Steele? Steele was the leader of Robo Force, a range of robotic toys made in the mid-80s by the Ideal Toy Company. Although clearly a toy, Steele was programmable and expandable, and like Big Trak he was great for moving things around the house.
Modulus was sold as “the friend of Homo sapiens”, which didn’t sound sinister at all. Modulus was designed to be a useful home companion, but its modular design was intended to be as flexible as possible: you could add a voice synthesiser or voice recognition, infra-red sensors or different limbs. There were three versions: the base model, a “service & security” model and the vaguely humanoid “Moddy”.
It’s Tomy time again! Omnibot was a range of robots that looked like proper robots. They had cassette decks and digital clocks so you could schedule playback or programmed movements for particular times, and they could carry small objects: Omnibot 2000 could even carry drinks. However, Omnibot had a a fatal flaw: if you lost the remote, which was really easy to do, the entire unit was useless.
Do you think RB Robotics had seen Star Wars? The cylindrical RB5X had a shape and a name awfully reminiscent of everybody’s favourite fictional robot, but there was substance to its Star Wars style: it could learn from experience, so if it bumped into things on one pass of a room it would learn not to bump into them again. RB5X was one of the first commercial robots that could work autonomously instead of requiring instructions from an operator or programmer.
Nintendo’s ROB – Robotic Operating Buddy – was an accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System that could respond to simple commands from the console, transmitted via flashes on your TV screen. Nintendo seemed to give up on it almost immediately, as it only ever worked with two games: as it was designed solely as a gaming accessory, it was completely pointless if you didn’t have those games. Like the Virtual Boy, it’s another example of Nintendo being way ahead of its time.
This enormous, fire-breathing transformer is basically a truck that turns into a metal dinosaur, so it’s hardly a surprise to discover that it’s a favourite visitor to monster truck shows. It weighs 31 tons, runs off a 500hp diesel engine and its claws can exert 24,000lbs of force. Not only that, but it has two 20-gallon propane tanks for its fire-breathing powers. Imagine doing the weekly shop in one of these.
The Robotic Workshop
Just before Lego Mindstorms, The Robotic Workshop enabled you to build and program your own robots. Initially made for the Commodore 64, it was later adapted for Apple, Atari and IBM computers too. It was an amazing toolkit for the robotically minded, featuring over 50 parts including motors, wheels and sensors.
Tomy’s Verbot may be a child of the 80s, but like much of that era you can buy it on eBay: we’ve seen a few going for less than £20. Verbot could respond to voice commands, waving its little robot arms or flashing its little robot eyes. You could even make its little robot mouth light up by asking it to smile. Rather brilliantly, you could create your own command words, a feature that was never, ever abused by giggling schoolchildren.