The August 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

This Robotics Startup Wants to Be the Boston Dynamics of China

Chinese startup Unitree Robotics unveils Laikago quadruped robot

2 min read
Laikago quadruped robot created by Chinese robotics startup Unitree
Photo: Unitree Robotics

Of all the legged robots built in labs all over the world, few inspire more awe and reverence than Boston Dynamics’ quadrupeds.

Chinese roboticist Xing Wang has long been a fan of BigDog, AlphaDog, Spot, SpotMini, and other robots that Boston Dynamics has famously introduced over the years. “Marc Raibert … is my idol,” Wang once told us about the founder and president of Boston Dynamics.

Now Wang, with funding from a Chinese angel investor, has founded his own robotics company, called Unitree Robotics and based in Hangzhou, outside Shanghai. Wang says his plan is making legged robots as popular and affordable as smartphones and drones.

Unitree’s first robot is a four-legged robodog called Laikago, which the company is announcing this week. (The name comes from Laika, the Soviet space dog, which Wang admires as a symbol of “human exploration of the unknown.”)

Laikago is designed as a research platform for scientists and roboticists, but Wang hopes science museums and robot enthusiasts may also want one. With further improvements, the robot could also be used in applications like package delivery, he says.

As a grad student at Shanghai University, Wang and his adviser, Jia Wenchuan, built a quadruped with 3-degrees-of-freedom legs that could walk forward, backward, and sideways, and also over rough terrain.

Boston Dynamics’ machines served as inspiration, but Wang wanted to “make quadruped robots simpler and smaller, so that they can help ordinary people with things like carrying objects or as companions,” he told us.

Kick test of Laikago quadruped robotXing Wang tests his robot’s ability to stabilize itself by kicking it, a tradition started by Boston Dynamics engineers.Photo: Unitree Robotics

For now Laikago can’t do much on its own. The robot is currently not autonomous and needs to be remotely operated, using a Wi-Fi-enabled controller. It doesn’t carry stereo cameras or lidar sensors, though users can easily integrate additonal modules, Wang says.

Unitree created the robot’s mechanical structure, control system, and motion control algorithms from scratch. It also designed custom motors, drivers, and force sensors for the robot.

Laikago will sell initially for between US $20,000 and $30,000, but Wang hopes to bring the price down with further refinements and higher volume.

Laikago hanging out with deerLaikago is designed as a research platform but could also be used as a robot pet.Photo: Unitree Robotics

Of all “tricks” Laikago can do, Wang’s favorite is the robot’s ability to remain stable in uneven surfaces, or when kicked. He was surprised by some of the motions the robot did to stabilize itself, including motions he did not explicitly program the robot to do.

“The actual performance is surprisingly good,” Wang says of the robot’s control algorithms. “Math is wonderful.”

The Conversation (0)

How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

10 min read
An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page
Blue

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

Keep Reading ↓Show less