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A ​Quadruped Humanoid Robot Might Be Able To Do It All

Swiss-Mile's robot can stand on two legs, walk on four legs, and drive like a car

2 min read
A red quadruped robot with wheels for feet balances upright on its hind legs in an empty room.

Last year, we wrote an article arguing that for legged robots, motorized wheels offer a number of significant advantages over feet. Locked wheels can behave similarly to point feet, and unlocking them gives legged robots the ability to travel both faster and more efficiently.

While we’ve seen several examples of legged robots leveraging wheels, the best example of this strategy almost certainly comes from ETH Zürich’s Robotic Systems Lab, which has been exploring what’s possible with wheeled-legged robot performance built around ANYmal quadruped robots. That technology has just been spun out into a company called Swiss-Mile, which wants to commercialize wheel-legged robots for a wide variety of tasks including mapping, inspection, disaster relief, and logistics in urban environments, to name a few.

Swiss-Mile proposes our multimodal robot ANYmal with wheels and legs unifying unique properties that make it a general-purpose solution for smart freight logistic systems. In contrast to wheeled delivery platforms and lightweight delivery drones, it can already efficiently overcome flat terrains, go over obstacles like steps and stairs, and carry heavy payloads in indoor and outdoor spaces.

Weird flex on Tesla aside, this video shows a real robot doing real things that are really hard in the real world. Meanwhile, the Tesla Bot simply does not exist and furthermore is not likely to exist, maybe ever. But let’s stop talking about Tesla and talk more about Swiss-Mile, because that video is super impressive. Here’s a little bit of background on the research behind the performance:

It’s a car, quadruped, and humanoid, with driving at speeds of up to 22 km/h, overcoming obstacles, and standing up on two legs! —Marko Bjelonic

While the humanoid mode is very cool, I’m not sure how useful it’s going to be in practice. It requires a dynamic motion to get into that mode (and presumably, out of it), which you’d want to do well away from people. And then you’ve got an unstable robot that looks to require a significant amount of space to properly balance—personally, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable interacting with the robot in this mode.

Marko Bjelonic, who leads the Swiss-Mile team along with Marco Hutter, tells us that one day, this could be a useful feature for a logistics robot: “By using its front legs as arms, the robot could grab packages from clients and then place them in a cargo compartment on its back. It would then go back down onto all fours, and transport those packages by quickly rolling along the street.” But for now, last-mile delivery (whether utilizing humanoid mode or not) is more of a long term vision. Swiss-Mile is focusing instead on commercial tasks that require a unique combination of speed and obstacle traversal but don’t get into the complicated space of human interaction, like mapping or inspecting complex spaces. A sensible choice, to be sure, but I’d still like to find an ANYmal standing on my doorstep with a delivery order one day. Safely, that is.

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Today’s Robotic Surgery Turns Surgical Trainees Into Spectators

Medical training in the robotics age leaves tomorrow's surgeons short on skills

10 min read
Photo of an operating room. On the left side of the image, two surgeons sit at consoles with their hands on controls. On the right side, a large white robot with four arms operates on a patient.

The dominant player in the robotic surgery industry is Intuitive Surgical, which has more than 6,700 da Vinci machines in hospitals around the world. The robot’s four arms can all be controlled by a single surgeon.

Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

Before the robots arrived, surgical training was done the same way for nearly a century.

During routine surgeries, trainees worked with nurses, anesthesiologists, and scrub technicians to position and sedate the patient, while also preparing the surgical field with instruments and lights. In many cases, the trainee then made the incision, cauterized blood vessels to prevent blood loss, and positioned clamps to expose the organ or area of interest. That’s often when the surgeon arrived, scrubbed in, and took charge. But operations typically required four hands, so the trainee assisted the senior surgeon by suctioning blood and moving tissue, gradually taking the lead role as he or she gained experience. When the main surgical task was accomplished, the surgeon scrubbed out and left to do the paperwork. The trainee then did whatever stitching, stapling, or gluing was necessary to make the patient whole again.

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