When Google announced earlier this month that a secret division of the company had been buying up robotics companies for the past six months the internet got excited.
When the news broke this week that they’d bought Boston Dynamics, the internet got really excited.
This is because Boston Dynamics makes some of the most fascinating and technologically advanced robots the web has seen – and thankfully they don’t stint in uploading footage of their creations to YouTube either.
Although the acquisition doesn’t mean that Google Glass-wearing robots are going to start tramping through your living room in an effort to complete work on Street View Home, it’s exciting to look at the varied creations that Boston Dynamics will be bringing to Google’s robotic stables and imagine a future where the search giant's ‘Don’t be evil’ motto blends with Asimov’s first law of robotics.
Essentially a remote controlled car, SandFlea has one (really good) trick up its sleeve: it can jump up to 30 feet into the air. “That is high enough to jump over a compound wall, onto the roof of a house, up a set of stairs or into a second story window,” says Boston Dynamics. An onboard gyroscope keeps the bot level during its leap whilst a camera watches the ground to ensure a touchdown with minimum fuss.
Although PetMan is undoubtedly the most disturbingly life like of Boston Dynamic’s bots in terms of its realistic walking gait and flexing movements, it’s actually more of an elaborate mannequin than a functional robot. PetMan’s unsupported walking motion and displays of light calisthenics are all designed to stress-test protective clothing that will shield troops against chemical attacks.
However, to see the potential of humanoid bots, you need only look to Atlas, PetMan bigger brother. Atlas takes PetMan's flexible frame and puts some muscle on those metal bones. Funded by Darpa, Atlas is currently being put through its paces as a possible first-responder in disaster situations. Click here to watch it in action.
BigDog and LS3
BigDog was Boston Dynamic’s first online star. About the size of a small mule or - unsurprisingly - a big dog, this quadrupedal toiler is built to tackle difficult terrain and carry heavy loads. It’s about three feet long, two and a half feet tall and weighs just over 100kg. It can carry loads of up to 150kg and was originally funded by DARPA alongside its bigger brother LS3 (above) to provide ground support to infantry troops.
LS3 builds on Big Dog's capabilities, adding an array of cameras and sensors that allow it automatically follow a designated leader. It also responds to voice commands, and can be told to follow or hang back. Early tests of 'roll over', 'beg' and 'kill' were reportedly mixed.
Cheetah takes some of the leg design seen in Big Dog and LS3 but adapts it for pure speed. It currently holds the world record for the world’s fastest legged robot, topping out at 28.3mph and smashing the previous record of 13.1mph set in 1989.
Although in the video above the Cheetah is actually being powered by a hydraulic pump located off to one side of the treadmill, there's reason to believe that these speeds - and faster - will soon be recorded outdoors. WildCat, Cheetah's successor, can already run up to 16mph without assistance, although the 2-stroke go-cart engine powering the beast means you'd at least hear it sneaking up on you.
Rounding off this introduction to Boston Dynamics' bots is perhaps the most endearingly determined of all the company's creations; RHex is a small six-legged bot that has a number of “specialized gaits that devour rough terrain with minimal operator input”.
Essentially this means that although RHex’s walking style looks silly, it can happily splash through shallow streams and stamp its way over rocky paths. A fully sealed body keeps it working in any environment and it can also be remotely controlled by an operator up to 700 metres away. Let's just hope that when Google doles out delivery duties, RHex gets the job rather than the terrifying PetMan.