When you think about car companies, one thing you probably don't think of is humanoid robots. But in Honda Motors' (NYSE:HMC) case, that's exactly what you should think of, especially when it comes to investing. Here's why.
In October 2000, Honda unveiled its Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, or ASIMO, humanoid robot. At 4 feet, 3 inches, and 119 pounds, ASIMO -- which looks like a small astronaut -- was designed to be a "multi-functional mobile assistant," that can, among many things, walk, run, hop, respond to voice commands, navigate and pick up objects, and respond to gestures and faces. More pointedly, it's arguably the world's most advanced humanoid robot.
So far, ASIMO has been used as a tool for fostering interest in science, especially among young students. But ASIMO's future goals, according to Honda, are to be able to assist people, and be able to respond to disasters. And thanks to 2011's Fukushima nuclear disaster, Honda's disaster bots may be getting the fast-track on design and development.
Responding to Fukushima
According to IEEE Spectrum, following the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, Honda reportedly received numerous requests to use ASIMO for the disaster response. One problem: ASIMO wasn't prepared to handle that type of situation. Consequently, Japan responded to the disaster using U.S. robots such as iRobot's (NASDAQ:IRBT) 710 Warrior and PakBot, and the Chiba Institute of Technology's Quince 2. That spurred Honda into action.
On June 17, Honda announced that, in conjunction with the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, it developed a "High-Access Survey Robot," which began working in the Fukushima reactor buildings on June 18.
Great news, right? Here's something better.
"Following the development of this survey-performing robot arm, Honda will accelerate the development of humanoid robots also designed for use in response to disasters, including the prevention and mitigation of damage caused by a disaster," Honda stated. In other words, Honda is accelerating its disaster response robots, which are based on ASIMO.
DARPA's Atlas vs. ASIMO
A disaster bot based on ASIMO isn't the only robot in development: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is currently hosting a competition based on Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot, in which seven teams are competing to build algorithms and software that allow the Atlas robot to respond to disasters. The team that's the most successful will win DARPA's Robot Challenge, along with $2 million.
Plus, Northrop Grumman's (NYSE:NOC) Remotec division has already developed Titus, a next-gen unmanned ground vehicle, or UGV, used by first responders and the military. And in 2007, iRobot teamed up with Boeing (NYSE:BA) to develop a next-gen, small UGV called "SUGV Early" that's supposed to replace the PackBot -- used to safely disarm improvised explosive devices.
However, except for Atlas, Honda's ASIMO is already far more advanced than these bots, and a disaster robot based on ASIMO will probably make them all look like child's toys. That means Honda's venture could be a giant leap forward in disaster robots.
The future is robots
No matter how you look at it, robots are becoming more and more advanced. There are robots such as Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci robots that assist with precision surgery. Rethink Robotics developed Baxter, a manufacturing robot that can work alongside humans. And now we have the race for a disaster-response robot.
Further, Rodney Brooks, Rethink Robots' CEO, has stated that the goal of robotics is to make robots as commonplace as today's computers. That means that companies, like Honda, stand to make a great deal of money from their ventures in robotics.
There are many possible drawbacks to the rise of the robots, and I've written about that here, but it also presents a potentially lucrative investment.
Fool contributor Katie Spence owns shares of Northrop Grumman. Follow her on Twitter: @TMFKSpence. The Motley Fool recommends Intuitive Surgical and iRobot and owns shares of Intuitive Surgical and Northrop Grumman. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.