here is something uncanny about the way this dog-like robot moves – its skeletal frame whirs loudly as it marches on the spot, then moves side to side, and around in a circle in a strange dance. Built by a team in the Robotic Systems Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), assistant professor Marco Hutter says the “ANYmal” is his newest creation.
Not only can it run but climb, crouch and jump. “We wanted to make something that was optimal from a robotics point of view,” he says.“We put springs in all the joints so we can use it in all sorts of environments.”As part of a pilot project, the ANYmal has been put to work on offshore oil and gas platforms where it can go about inspection tasks (often dangerous for humans) completely autonomously thanks to laser sensors and cameras.
I ask how it compares with the robot that was sent to Mars.“In general, space technology is very old,” says Hutter, walking me down the corridor and pointing to a dusty old unit on caterpillar tracks.“This was part of a study we were doing for the European Space Agency. But wheels are boring – legs are the future.”
Founded in 1854, the ETH is Switzerland’s answer to MIT. Ranked one of the best universities in the world, more than 20 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to its alumni over the years, including Albert Einstein in 1921. Today it has 20,000 students and an annual budget of Sfr 1.7 billion (£1.4 billion), funded by taxpayers.“That is part of the reason the ETH is the best,” says professor Peter Seitz, a “sherpa” from its Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab (IE Lab).
In a warehouse on the Science City campus, a short drive north-west of the old town, architects are using giant mechanical arms to explore new construction techniques that employ nothing more than loops of yarn and pebbles, for example, or 3D printed concrete. Upstairs is the Arch Tech Lab, a vast, light-filled space with an undulating roof of 48,000 wooden beams that was built entirely by a single gantry robot. Aleksandra Anna Apolinarska, an architect in the Gramazio Kohler Research Lab at the ETH Zurich, says the days of mass production are behind us.“We think it is time for mass customisation.”
From self-driving cars to augmented reality, the ETH is forging a new tomorrow in myriad ways. And with the help of Seitz’s IE Lab, students have the opportunity to take ideas from the research stage to market. Between 1996 and 2016, 355 spinoff companies have been founded at the ETH, a number of which have been in the field of robotics.
Verity Studios, for example, designs magical quadcopter drones that are being used in Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour show on Broadway, while Wingtra builds autonomous fixed-wing planes that take off and land like helicopters, and can be used for anything from filming to wildlife protection. Close to the ETH, Disney has a research lab that opened in 2010, and is putting its efforts into video of the future. In Oerlikon is the HQ of established industrial robotics giant ABB. It’s no wonder that Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics and former editor-in-chief of Wired, has dubbed Zurich “the Silicon Valley of Robotics”.
In 2016, Switzerland was ranked first in Cornell University’s Global Innovation Index, and Zurich came second in the Mercer Quality of Living survey, significantly ahead of San Francisco (28th position).
Unsurprisingly, over the decades, the ETH has provided a compelling reason for big companies to