The robotics company famous for building BigDog, a four-legged robot that moves in a fashion that is both strange and disturbingly life-like, has added arms to its two-legged variant, PETMAN. A new video (below) from Boston Dynamics shows in the anthromorphic robot in motion.
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology spin-off, Boston Dynamics has been a Youtube hit since 2005, when it released video of BigDog, a quadruped robot designed to serve as a robotic pack mule in support of U.S. Army warfighters. Built with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funding and the help of several different government laboratories, companies, and universities, BigDog successfully demonstrated the abilities of modern, independently-operating robot.
Much of the technology used in BigDog has gone to support development of PETMAN, which has already been seen being run through its paces at Boston Dynamics. The latest development for PETMAN is the addition of fully functioning arms, which allow it to simulate movements of warfighters, including push-ups, running, and other strenuous activities. The robot can now walk at 4.4 miles per hour, and engineers plan to add a head once they finish fine-tuning neck movements.
Unlike BigDog, PETMAN hasn’t been designed to replace humans in the battlefield. Instead, the
Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin (PETMAN) is meant to test chemical protection clothing used by the U.S. Army. Unlike previous suit testers, which had to be supported mechanically and had a limited repertoire of motion, PETMAN can balance itself and move freely; walking, crawling and doing a variety of suit-stressing calisthenics during exposure to chemical warfare agents.
PETMAN will also simulate human physiology within the protective suit by controlling temperature, humidity and sweating when necessary to provide realistic test conditions.
The project has taken Boston Dynamic more than two-and-a-half years to develop, and is to be completed in 2011. The company’s partners for the program are Midwest Research Institute, Measurement Technologies Northwest, Oak Ridge National Laboratory as well as Smith Carter CUH2A (SCC) and HHI Corporation, which will construct the chamber. The work is being done for the US Army PD-CCAT-TI.
Led by Dr. Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics’ VP of engineering, development of PETMAN got its start with a $26.3 million Army program. Two years ago, the company, based in Waltham, Mass., first demonstrated PETMAN’s legs by putting them to walk on a treadmill. This year, the company showed that the robot legs can run at up to 7 kilometers per hour (about 4.4 miles per hour) and announced it had completed a prototype of the body.
But until now, the extent of PETMAN’s full capabilities was a mystery.
Raibert says the humanoid and its behavior are still under development. “We plan to deliver the robot to the Army next year.”
According to the Army requirements, the robot has to have about the same weight and dimensions of a 50th percentile male (the size of a standard crash-test dummy), or a mass of 80 kilograms (about 180 pounds) and height of about 1.75 meters (nearly 6 feet). PETMAN also has to simulate respiration, sweating, and changes in skin temperature based on the amount of physical exertion. Boston Dynamics used motion-capture systems to study the movements of humans as they performed a variety of exercises.
The robot relies on a tether that provides hydraulic power, but its body had to share space with many sensors and other components. Cramming everything together became a big engineering puzzle. And not only the legs had to be strong, Raibert explains, but the upper body too, to allow the robot to crawl and stand up.
And I know some of you are wondering: Will it have a head? “We were a bit late getting the articulated neck mechanism working,” he says, “but it is coming along, and a head along with it.”
I also asked Raibert if they could eventually use PETMAN or PETMAN-related technologies in other projects. In other words, are we going to see PETMAN used in applications other than the chemical suit tests?
“You bet,” he says. “There are all sorts of things robots like PETMAN could be used for. Any place that has been designed for human access, mobility, or manipulation skills. Places like the Fukushima reactors could be accessed by PETMAN-like robots (or AlphaDogs), without requiring any human exposure to hazardous materials. Perhaps firefighting inside of buildings or facilities designed for human access, like on board ships designed for human crews.”
This, of course, will mean another big challenge for his team: Transforming the humanoid from a tethered system into a free standing, self-contained robot. Boston Dynamics, however, has already demonstrated its ability to transition to tether-less machines with its BigDog project.
Look at the evolution of the model:
Biped Locomotion Acrobatics: