DARPA commissions robotic cheetah, sprinting humanoid

The company hired to build these new robots has a history of creating amazing--and amazingly strange--machines.

I doubt that the people behind the Boston Dynamics BigDog robot expected their creation to become one of the last decade's legendary viral videos, but that's what happened. In case you missed the clip, here it is:

I'd be remiss not to point you to the inspired parody, too. So here's that.

What makes the BigDog robot so odd is the same thing that makes it impressive: this DARPA-funded robot moves uncannily, almost like a living creature. It even seems to respond intelligently to its surroundings. The technology is apparently quite adaptable, too, inspiring a bipedal robot called PETMAN.

Well, DARPA has once again called upon Boston Dynamics, this time for two ambitious projects. (Via Crave.) The agency is asking for robotic cheetahs and new humanoid robots, both with a focus on speed and agility.

The Cheetah robot will run at speeds between 20 and 30 miles per hour, and should be completed within 20 months. For reference, the fastest human runners rarely break 25mph, and a real cheetah can break 70mph. (However, Boston Dynamics' president tells the Boston Globe that he expects the technology to eventually support speeds of up to 70 MPH.)

The second project, called Atlas, seems to be a more practical successor to the company's PETMAN robot, which, while highly capable at walking, was intended primarily as a testbed for testing chemical-resistant apparel. Unlike the PETMAN, Atlas will have arms, and is intended to have a much wider range of movement than its predecessor.

I don't doubt that the resulting products will be impressive, but as with the countless other bipedal and quadripedal robots trotted out as technology demos by companies like Honda, Hitachi and Boston Dynamics, there aren't any obvious practical applications for the Cheetah or Atlas yet--something Boston Dynamics and its client seem fairly comfortable with.

That DARPA is commissioning more robots of this type is news, to be sure. The real story, though, will be when the agency hands over a few million dollars for a humanoid robot with explicit real-world uses. If the Atlas and Cheetah can't be those robots, maybe they can at least help to give us an idea of when military, industrial, and civilian applications for animal-like robots will finally crest the horizon.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com