Robot walks like a human
Round four of mankind’s epic battle against the walking, talking, killer machines starts with the opening of Terminator Salvation. But humanoid robots aren’t confined to the movies. Turns out the U.S. military is backing research into robots that act like people, as well.
Today, the American armed forces’ main ground robots, the Foster-Miller Talon and iRobot’s Packbot, look like boxes with caterpillar tracks. It’s a nice, stable design. And it works well – which is why the military has sent thousands of ‘em over to Afghanistan and Iraq.
But these robots don’t easily fit into a world that we humans have constructed for creatures that operate like us. Door handles only work if you have something like a hand – and it has to be at the right height, too. Wheels and tracks get stuck on obstacles that legs just jump over. So it makes sense, sometimes, to shape a machine like a man.
One of the American military’s leading humanoid robots is Petman. Its job will be to testing chemical protection clothing for the U.S. Army. Petman is being built by Boston Dynamics, famous for its alarmingly lifelike BigDog robotic pack mule. Unlike earlier suit-testing robots, which needed external support, Petman will stand – and walk – on his own two feet.
“Petman will balance itself and move freely; walking, crawling and doing a variety of suit-stressing calisthenics during exposure to chemical warfare agents,” the company promises. “Petman will also simulate human physiology within the protective suit by controlling temperature, humidity and sweating when necessary, all to provide realistic test conditions. ”
A sweating robot? I had a flashback to the first Terminator movie:
“The 600 series had rubber skin. We spotted them easy. These are new. They look human. Sweat, bad breath, everything….”
Petman needs to precisely simulate human movement, and the makers say it will be “the first anthropomorphic robot that moves dynamically like a real person, with natural, agile movement.” The mecha-man is described as “BigDog’s Big Brother.” In fact, his bottom half is simply a pair of BigDog legs.
The program will consist of 13 months of design and 17 months of construction. The finished product being delivered in 2011. (Will they have to deliver Petman, or will they just give him the address and send him off?)
Meanwhile, Bucknell University researchers have received a $1.2 million grant for research and development of military robots, including a 5-foot-tall bipedal walker.
“It would move over curbs, up stairs and around rubble,” says Keith Buffinton, professor of mechanical engineering. “It could be used for surveillance and to gather information in areas you would not want to risk human life.”
The machine is already taking its first steps and is said to be better at balancing than a human. Professor Steven Shooter says they’ll be able to give the robot a head (complete with cameras) and “arm-like devices to assist with balancing.”
It’s unlikely that killer robots are walking among us just yet. But in a few years someone with a rather mechanical gait who refuses to take off his motorcycle helmet may not be quite what he seem.
Bonus feature… and spoiler alert…
There are new non-human Terminators in the new movie as well, including a variety of riderless motorbikes called Moto-Terminators. Once again, science fiction is only just ahead of science fact.
In 2005, one of the competitors in Darpa’s Grand Challenge for robot vehicles was an unmanned motor bike called Ghost Rider.
This was based on a 90-cc dirt bike outfitted with sensors, gyros for steering and video cameras for eyes. The designer, Anthony Levandowski of University of California, Berkeley, said that the two-wheel layout made it more maneuverable than the big Jeeps and trucks fielded by other competitors. It also as kept costs down. The whole thing cost just $150,000, which puts it in the bargain basement for military robotics.
An article in Berkeley Engineering’s newsletter later said that Levandowski “hopes to keep Ghostrider alive by continuing to refine its subsystems, like the obstacle avoidance software, for potential use in unmanned scouting and surveillance operations.”
Of course unmanned craft like the Predator also started out on scouting and surveillance duty – before someone decided to arm them.