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Boston Dynamics' PETMAN Humanoid Robot Walks and Does Push-Ups

Boston Dynamics releases stunning video showing off its most advanced humanoid robot

3 min read
Image: Boston Dynamics via YouTube

Petman humanoid robot from Boston Dynamics on video

It can walk, squat, kneel, and even do push-ups.

PETMAN is an adult-sized humanoid robot developed by Boston Dynamics, the robotics firm best known for the BigDog quadruped.

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 crawlingto 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:

As I said before, this is the first time I see a machine performing movements like that—remarkably human, yet uncanny valley-esque at the same time.

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 canrun 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.

Petman humanoid robot from Boston Dynamics on video

Petman humanoid robot from Boston Dynamics on video

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.

One question remains unanswered, though: Will BigDog become PETMAN's best friend?

More images:

Boston Dynamics PETMAN Humanoid Robot Video

Boston Dynamics PETMAN Humanoid Robot Video

Boston Dynamics PETMAN Humanoid Robot Video

UPDATED: 9:52 a.m.

Images and video: Boston Dynamics

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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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