Luke Skywalker's rebel pilots might not have succeeded in toppling huge imperial walkers in the "Star Wars" films if the Empire used nimble robotics technology developed by Boston Dynamics. Now the real-life company has created a bigger version of its four-legged "BigDog" robot for the U.S. military that not only has great balance, but can also get back on its feet if it falls down.
The new and improved robot, called "AlphaDog," can haul 400 pounds of military gear on 20-mile missions across rough terrain, as opposed to BigDog's 340-pound load capacity. A new video shows the robot trotting along at a rapid pace, resisting the shoves of two humans, and even rolling over onto its belly from its side so that it can stand back up.
Despite its performance, AlphaDog still represents a lab prototype for a robotic mule that could someday carry battle gear for U.S. soldiers and marines. Both the Pentagon's DARPA and the U.S. Marine Corps have helped fund the Boston Dynamics project with the aim of completing a first version by 2012.
The remarkable walking and balance abilities stand out among today's robots. Many researchers have yet to master all the sensory input, mechanics and coordinated effort behind b alanced walking or running — abilities that humans and animals take for granted. Even science-fiction films, such as "The Empire Strikes Back," have acknowledged the difficulty of four-legged robotic locomotion.
But AlphaDog's nimbleness likely comes from its BigDog lineage. The older BigDog has sensors to detect the position of each leg, how much force a leg is using, and contact with the ground, as well as a gyroscope to maintain orientation. It also uses LIDAR, a laser-based technology that can map the features of objects or terrain.
Boston Dynamics has continued to expand its robotic stable past just the robot mules. It has begun working on a robotic cheetah that could push its mastery of robotic running to the extreme edge, as well as a two-legged humanoid robot that might someday give the Terminator robots a run for their money.
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