June 23, 2018
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Dog-like robots can walk, climb and leap, but can’t replace soldiers yet, scientist says

Seth Koenig | BDN
Seth Koenig | BDN
Alfred Rizzi of Boston Dynamics, shows footage of his company's walking robots during a talk at University of Southern Maine on Friday evening.
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Alfred Rizzi, Boston Dynamics robotics expert, told a Portland crowd Friday evening his company has developed dog-like robots that can walk through forested terrain, bug-like robots that can climb straight up walls and small cars that can accurately leap as high as nine meters.

But even though most of Boston Dynamics’ research is funded by the military, Rizzi said America is many years away from unmanned robotic soldiers of any number of legs.

Rizzi said his company is developing for the Defense Department a larger version of its quadrupedal BigDog robot, which has a viral following through YouTube videos and was called a “headless metallic Bambi” by comedian Stephen Colbert on his mock political commentary cable show “The Colbert Report.” The next generation AlphaDog is due to be capable of carrying 400 pounds and walking 20 miles per day on one tank of gas, basically intended as a pack mule for soldiers traversing difficult terrain.

Rizzi’s talk took place at the University of Southern Maine’s Wishcamper Center and was hosted by the school’s Department of Computer Science. The robotics expert showed the packed auditorium video footage of his company’s robots, and discussed challenges and considerations in developing control algorithms to guide the machines over sheets of ice, piles of rocks and walls.

Unlike the BigDog, which planned its movements entirely based on the resistance of the ground it sensed through its four legs, the AlphaDog is slated to use laser technology to map out the terrain in front of it and follow a designated guide, which in the field would be a soldier.

Boston Dynamics is also developing a bipedal robot that looks humanoid, Rizzi said, and that robot is meant to ultimately serve as a moving mannequin to wear prototype Army clothing during chemical weapons tests.

But the leap from animal-like robots who can navigate rough terrain and follow human guides to walking machines who can replace humans in battle, like unmanned aircraft have done with military planes in some cases, is not within sight just yet, he said.

“I think 10 years ago, they would have told you we’d have that licked in 10 years,” Rizzi said of robotics expectations. However, the Boston Dynamics chief robotics specialist said scientists are still far from being able to mimic in robots the instincts of humans, who build up complicated understandings of the world and how to interact with an environment over years of living and training.

In the meantime, Rizzi said his military customer is “very, very interested” in incremental progress with robots, such as the development of the pack mule AlphaDog.

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