It can walk, squat, kneel, and even do push-ups.
Today, the company is unveiling footage of the robot's latest capabilities. It's stunning.
The humanoid, which will certainly be compared to the Terminator Series 800 model, can perform various movements and maintain its balance much like a real person.
Boston Dynamics is building PETMAN, short for Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin, for the U.S. Army, which plans to use the robot to test chemical suits and other protective gear used by troops. It has to be capable of moving just like a soldier—walking, running, bending, reaching, army crawling—to test the suit's durability in a full range of motion.
Marc Raibert, the founder and president of Boston Dynamics, tells me that the biggest challenge was to engineer the robot, which uses a hydraulic actuation system, to have the approximate size of a person. "There was a great deal of mechanical design we had to do to get everything to fit," he says.
PETMAN was one of the robots that most impressed attendees of the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in San Francisco last month. At the event, Raibert showed a video that made the audience gasp. Unfortunately the clip wasn't ready for public release and we couldn't post it here. Now it's out:
Led by Dr. Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics' VP of engineering, development of PETMAN got its start with a $26.3 million Army program. Two years ago, the company, based in Waltham, Mass., first demonstrated PETMAN's legs by putting them to walk on a treadmill. This year, the company showed that the robot legs can run at up to 7 kilometers per hour (about 4.4 miles per hour) and announced it had completed a prototype of the body.
But until now, the extent of PETMAN's full capabilities was a mystery.
Raibert says the humanoid and its behavior are still under development. "We plan to deliver the robot to the Army next year."
According to the Army requirements, the robot has to have about the same weight and dimensions of a 50th percentile male (the size of a standard crash-test dummy), or a mass of 80 kilograms (about 180 pounds) and height of about 1.75 meters (nearly 6 feet). PETMAN also has to simulate respiration, sweating, and changes in skin temperature based on the amount of physical exertion. Boston Dynamics used motion-capture systems to study the movements of humans as they performed a variety of exercises.
The robot relies on a tether that provides hydraulic power, but its body had to share space with many sensors and other components. Cramming everything together became a big engineering puzzle. And not only the legs had to be strong, Raibert explains, but the upper body too, to allow the robot to crawl and stand up.
And I know some of you are wondering: Will it have a head? "We were a bit late getting the articulated neck mechanism working," he says, "but it is coming along, and a head along with it."
I also asked Raibert if they could eventually use PETMAN or PETMAN-related technologies in other projects. In other words, are we going to see PETMAN used in applications other than the chemical suit tests?
"You bet," he says. "There are all sorts of things robots like PETMAN could be used for. Any place that has been designed for human access, mobility, or manipulation skills. Places like the Fukushima reactors could be accessed by PETMAN-like robots (or AlphaDogs), without requiring any human exposure to hazardous materials. Perhaps firefighting inside of buildings or facilities designed for human access, like on board ships designed for human crews."
This, of course, will mean another big challenge for his team: Transforming the humanoid from a tethered system into a free standing, self-contained robot. Boston Dynamics, however, has already demonstrated its ability to transition to tether-less machines with its BigDog project.
UPDATED: 9:52 a.m.
Images and video: Boston Dynamics
Erico Guizzo is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. He has written stories on a wide range of science and technology topics, including Japanese androids, French computer codes, Icelandic video games, American crash-test dummies, and Canadian bacteria. His main area of interest is robotics, and he has written and edited hundreds of articles and videos featuring the latest advances in this field. He is also the cocreator of Spectrum’s critically acclaimed Robots for iPad app. For his robotics coverage, Guizzo has won four Neal Awards and has been a finalist for two National Magazine Awards. An IEEE member, he holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of São Paulo, in his native Brazil, and a master’s in science writing from MIT.