Yeah, so this right here is a giant robotic spider. By "giant" I mean that those legs are 20 centimeters long each, and if the body adds another 20 centimeters, we're looking at a robot arachnid that's a terrifying two feet across (0.6 meters). For what it's worth, this is approximately twice the size of the largest real spider, the Goliath bird-eater, and the Goliath bird-eater doesn't even jump.

Oh yes, this robot jumps.

The neat thing about spiders (if you're into spiders, anyway), is that they're hydraulically operated. Instead of moving their limbs with muscles, they do it by increasing the blood pressure in whatever limb they want to extend. Hydraulically operated robots work the same way, except they have a hydraulic pump instead of a heart and hydraulic fluid instead of blood. This can be a very effective way of providing power to limbs, which is why Boston Dynamics uses a hydraulic system in AlphaDog and PETMAN.

Anyway, back to this freaky thing. Designed by a team at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation in Germany, this prototype robospider was 3D printed, meaning that more of them than I would personally be comfortable with can be manufactured quickly and cheaply. A hydraulic pump in the body provides fluid pressure to the limbs allowing the robot to crawl forwards and backwards, and some versions are apparently powerful enough to leap off the ground, grab you by the throat, and rip your head off. Or maybe not that last bit. Maybe.

In any case, having eight legs makes the robot exceptionally nimble, which is the whole reason for utilizing this design. The body of the spiderbot also contains the control system and a variety of sensors to enable it to perform its primary mission, which is as "an exploratory tool in environments that are too hazardous for humans." Like, I dunno, environments that are full of giant spiders?

[ Fraunhofer ] via [ Eureka

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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