Unitree Robotics, well known for providing affordable legged robots along with questionable Star Wars–themed promotional videos, has announced a brand-new, custom-made, 6-degree-of-freedom robotic arm intended to be mounted on the back of its larger quadrupeds. Also, it will save humanity from Sith from Mars, or something.

This, we should point out, is not the first time Unitree has used the Force in a promotional video, although its first attempt was very Dark Side and the second attempt seemed to be mostly an apology for the first. The most recent video here seems to have landed squarely on the Light Side, which is good, but I’m kinda confused about the suggestion that the baddies come from Mars (?) and most humans are killed (??) and the answer is some sort of “Super AI” (???). I guess Unitree will have to release more products so that we can learn how this story ends.

Anyway, about the arm: There are two versions, the Z1 Air and the Z1 Pro, built with custom motors using harmonic reducers for low backlash and torque control. They are almost exactly the same, except that the Pro weighs 4.3 kilograms rather than 4.1 kg, and has a payload of 3–5 kg rather than 2 kg. Max reach is 0.7 meters, with 0.1 millimeter repeatability. The price for the Air version is “about $6600,” and it’s compatible with “other mobile robots” as well.

It’s important to note that just having an arm on a robot is arguably the easy part—it’s using the arm that’s the hard part, in the sense that you have to program it to do what you need it to do. A strong, lightweight, and well-integrated arm certainly makes that job easier, but it remains to be seen what will be involved in getting the arm to do useful stuff. I don’t want to draw too many comparisons to Boston Dynamics here, but Spot’s arm comes with autonomous and semi-autonomous behaviors built-in, allowing otherwise complex actions to be leveraged by commercial end users. It’s not yet clear how Unitree is handling this.

We’re at the point now with robots in general that in many cases, software is the differentiator rather than hardware, and you get what you pay for. That said, sometimes what you want or need is a more affordable system to work with, and remember that Unitree’s AlienGo costs under $10K. There’s certainly a demand for affordable hardware, and while it may not be ready to be dropped into commercial applications just yet, it’s good to see options like these on the market.

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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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