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.”

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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
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In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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