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 robot Xing 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 deer Laikago 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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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

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

"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.

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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