Boston Dynamics Building Fast-Running Robot Cheetah, New Agile Humanoid

boston dynamics cheetah robot
Computer model of Boston Dynamics' Cheetah robot galloping.

Boston Dynamics, best known for its BigDog bionic beast and other agile machines, is developing two new robots: one will be a super fast quadruped called Cheetah, which obviously should've been named BigCat; the other is a beautifully intricate, freakishly scary full-size humanoid called T-800 Atlas.

The Cheetah robot will have a flexible spine, an articulated head and neck, and possibly a tail. Think of BigDog, bur rather than a robot mule, Cheetah will be able to accelerate rapidly and make tight turns so it can "chase or evade," the company said in a statement.

In fact, Boston Dynamics says Cheetah will sprint "faster than any existing legged robot and faster than the fastest human runners." That's a bold claim. But seeing what the company has demonstrated with BigDog, we're excited to see this cybernetic cat stepping out of their lab.

The second robot Boston Dynamics is building, the humanoid Atlas, will have a torso, two arms and two legs, and will be capable of climbing and maneuvering in rough terrain. The robot will "sometimes walk upright as a biped, sometimes turning sideways to squeeze through narrow passages," and sometimes crawl, using its hands for extra support and balance. (I don't suppose they'll run the Cheetah running algorithms on it, or will they?)  

petman atlas boston dynamics humanoid
Atlas, a new humanoid robot that Boston Dynamics is developing, will rely on hardware built for another of the company's robots, Petman, shown here during initial assembly and testing.

Atlas will be based, in part, on Petman, an anthropomorphic robot Boston Dynamics developed for the U.S. Army. Until recently, only the robot's legs had been made public, but now the company has unveiled its full (well, headless) body [see photo above].

Atlas will be different from existing humanoids that use static techniques to control their movements, relying instead on a dynamic control approach, the company said. "Unlike Honda’s Asimo and most other humanoid robots you’ve seen, Atlas will walk like a man, using a heel-to-toe walking motion, long strides and dynamic transfer of weight on each step," said Rob Playter, the Atlas principal investigator and vice president of engineering at Boston Dynamics.

Another bold claim. So far we've seen that Boston Dynamics can make its Petman humanoid run -- and fast. But I still want to see it walking around in human spaces, negotiating obstacles on the floor, or keeping its balance when someone pokes it on the chest -- things that other humanoids, including, yes, Asimo, have demonstrated a long time ago.

The company says both robots will stand out for their use of dynamic agility, throwing or swinging their legs and arms to maintain balance and overcome obstacles. “For these programs to succeed we must develop robot hardware and software with the speed, flexibility and strength of athletes, and a more fundamental understanding of how legs work” said Marc Raibert, lead investigator of the Cheetah program and president of Boston Dynamics.

Boston Dynamics, based in Waltham, Mass., will develop the two robots as part of new contracts that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded the company. 

The company says that, in addition to military applications, Cheetah and Atlas could find uses in emergency response, firefighting, advanced agriculture, and vehicular travel in places that are inaccessible to conventional wheeled and tracked vehicles.

Images: Boston Dynamics

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