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If you tune in for an Olympic track race, you may or may not notice a small group of cars milling about in the infield.
There aren't large cars, barely taller than the knees of the Olympic staffers and volunteers walking among them. They're mostly black and white, and it's immediately unclear what purpose they serve if you're just seeing them in the foreground or background of a race like this one:
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) August 5, 2021
Here's a closer look at one:
So, what are these futuristic-looking interlopers? Well, the reason they may be a mystery for people watching the "track" part of track and field is that they haven't seen them in action during some other events.
What those little Olympic track-and-field robots do
The little cars are, in fact, recovery robots used to transport thrown objects (e.g. discus, javelins, hammers) back to where they belong after athletes make use of them. Such cars have actually been used at past Olympics, with different aesthetics.
At Rio, they were tiny pick-up trucks.
And in London, mini-Mini Coopers (of course).
The real twist with Tokyo's recovery robots is that they have switched from remote control cars like the two above to cars operated by artificial intelligence.
Per the Olympics' release announcing the robots' existence, the cars are made through a partnership with Toyota and use their onboard cameras and computers to determine the optimal path to transport their cargo.
They do still need a hand actually picking up the stuff, though:
— Darryll Colthrust (@dcolthrust) August 3, 2021
The cars — er, field support robots — are part of a fleet of robots deployed by the Olympics and Toyota in Tokyo, including some rugby ball-transporting siblings. Of course, none can hold a candle to our new basketball-shooting overlords.
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) July 27, 2021
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