What Olympic robot cars do

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If you log in for an Olympic track race, you may or may not notice a small group of cars driving around the infield.

There are no big cars, barely taller than the knees of the Olympic staff and volunteers walking among them. They’re mostly black and white, and it’s not immediately clear what they’re for if you only see them in the foreground or background of a race like this:

Here’s one closer:

Let’s take a closer look at athletic cars at the Olympics. (James Lang-USA TODAY Sports)

So what are these futuristic looking intruders? Well, the reason they may be a mystery to people watching the “track” part of athletics is that they haven’t seen them in action at other events.

What these little Olympic track and field robots do

Small cars are, in fact, salvage robots used to transport thrown objects (eg, discs, javelins, hammers) into their place after athletes use them. Such cars have in fact been used in previous Olympics, with a different aesthetic.

In Rio, they were tiny vans.

A remote control car transports the discus during the Men's Discus Throw Qualifying Round of the Track and Field Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 12, 2016. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP via Getty Images)

Olympic robot car circa 2016 (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP via Getty Images)

And in London, mini-Mini Cooper (of course).

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUG 08: A mini remote control car is used to return the hammer in the women's hammer throw qualifying on Day 12 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 8, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele / Getty Images)

Olympic robot car circa 2012. (Photo by Michael Steele / Getty Images)

The real twist with Tokyo’s salvage robots is that they’ve gone from remote control cars like the two above to cars powered by artificial intelligence.

According to the Olympics press release announcing the existence of the robots, the cars are made through a partnership with Toyota and use their on-board cameras and computers to determine the optimal path to transport their cargo.

However, they still need a hand to pick up the stuff:

The cars – er, field assist robots – are part of a fleet of robots deployed by the Olympics and Toyota in Tokyo, some of which siblings carrying rugby balls. Of course, no one can stand up to our new basketball overlords.

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