Four-legged robot simulates human motion

Published 28 March 2008

Four-legged, all-terrain robot can maintain its balance over rugged terrain while carrying a payload of up to 340 pounds; robot can also cope with man-made obstacles and gallop (well, something between “gallop” and “canter”) over impediments

Waltham, Massachusetts-based Boston Dynamics offers the military and first responders what can only be described as the uglies robots you have seen: Sturdy, versatile, and useful — but hideously ungainly. There are four robots in the company’s offerings: BigDog (“The most advanced quadruped robot on Earth”); RHex (“The rugged robot that devours rough terrain”); LittleDog (“The legged learning robot”); and RiSE (“The amazing climbing robot”). BigDog’s motion is controlled by a built-in computer, and it has sensors which allow it to adapt to different terrains and conditions. The sensors provide stereo vision, joint force, joint position, and ground contact to allow for continuous movement — and a a laser gyroscope helps in balance under extreme conditions. We wrote a story last year about how Israeli special forces use llamas to carry equipment and supplies during stealthy operations against Hezbollah on the steep mountain sides of souhern Lebanons: The llamas are sure-footed on slopes and rocks, and also very quiet. BigDog may not be as nimble as a llama, but soldiers would appreciate the fact that it can maintaining its balance over rugged terrain while carrying a payload of up to 340 pounds. BigDog can also maneuver over icy parking lots, snowy hill sides, and slopes covered with dense foliage.

The company says that in tests, BigDog also coped well with man-made obstacles. It climbed over a pile of cement blocks, and proved itself capable of galloping, sprinting, and jumping over impediments, even if no one would mistake it for Carl Lewis.

Boston Dynamics was spun off the Massachusetts of Technology in 1992, and since then focused on robots which simulate the maneuvers of animals and human motion. BigDog is funded by the Defense Research Project Agency (DARPA), and defense funding undergirded much of the company research into human simulations for maintaining security in hostile environments. The company says that applications would include using robots for perimeter defense, mine clearance, removal of incendiary devices, and more.