Until earlier this week, we hadn’t heard much from our friends over at Boston Dynamics. But just because they weren’t churning out more nightmare-inducing footage doesn’t mean they weren’t up to big things. With the release of new videos last week, Boston Dynamics let us know about their progress on three animal-inspired robot projects.
Boston Dynamics is known in the technology community for their often scary, almost science fiction animal robots. The team, located in Waltham, MA, is funded by DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program, and makes robots for military and defense applications. They rose to fame in 2009 when one of their earlier robots, BigDog, became an internet sensation. Their BigDog videos gained millions of views, were covered by nearly every technology blog, and even inspired parodies and songs. It’s no surprise that people are fascinated by the technology. The robots are obviously animal-inspired, but make eerie sounds and unnatural movements. Just like BigDog, their newer projects are both impressive and terrifying.
Boston Dynamics first provided an update on ATLAS, the robot in development as part of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. The ATLAS robot is the government submission to the challenge, and serves as a container for teams only working on programming. The anthropomorphic robot (which now looks a lot like the Portal 2 character of the same name) can walk on uneven, rocky terrain, and balance on one foot. It can even maintain its balance on one foot while withstanding hits from swinging weights.
The team also released another update of their Legged Squad Support System (LS3) robot, a 4-legged robot that is similar to BigDog. The new video shows LS3 walking uphill in both sand and snow, carrying 400 pounds for 20 miles. In addition to its terrain traversing skills, the robot also seems to have a quieter motor than before. As it nears the end of its testing phase, we can see LS3 moving closer and closer to a real robot that could actually be used in the field.
If two updated robots wasn’t enough, Boston Dynamics seems to be assembling a veritable robot animal army. The final video revealed a new project called WildCat. Somehow reminiscent of the mechanical hound from Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, this robot is one of the more incredible projects from Boston Dynamics yet. While last year’s Cheetah robot could run faster, WildCat can run completely untethered from a power supply. It can both bound like a real cheetah and gallop like a horse, with all four feet leaving the ground at once in the middle of its stride. It can turn corners with apparent ease and even recover from falls. Even though it only runs at about 15 miles per hour, that’s still faster than a human on foot and very impressive for a robot carrying its own power supply.
Now that WildCat can run on its own, it shows actual potential for field use. It’s unclear why the military needs a giant, robotic cat. No one outside DARPA knows the full story, but Boston Dynamics hopes the robot can be used in military applications, including disaster relief scenarios. The more sinister possibilities you can imagine for its future use (remember how the mechanical hound was a ruthless killer?) will hopefully remain nothing more than a fictional warning of robots gone wrong. Even at its public debut, WildCat has once again asserted Boston Dynamics’ role as a leader in the robotics industry.