BigDog Robot
The Super Robotic Dog

The BigDog Robot is a new type of robots. It was developed by Boston Dynamics to carry heavy loads accross long distances. It could be used by the military as a luggage carrier that can walk along the soldiers by itself. But Boston Dynamics dream is to create legged robots that can autonomously walk anywhere a human or animal can. And that's a big challenge.

If you were looking for robotic pets, rather than the most advanced robot dog, check out here.

Update 2011: new version of the Bigdog and Petman! Click here to go straight to the new part.

1) What can the robotic dog do?

Have you ever seen a walking robot? Most people will answer yes. But have you ever seen a running robot , a robot walking on steep slopes with 10 cm of snow, or walking on icy road in winter? If you have, then you have seen the BigDog Robot.

The BigDog robot by Boston Dynamics can walk on slopes up to 45 degrees, run at 10 km/h and has a normal speed of 5 km/h (just like a healthy human walking). It can follow the operator or be controlled via a command. But the controls are only for the direction: the robotic dog has to find its own steps and avoid obstacles like tree roots or bricks by itself.

BigDog robot in the mud

The BigDog robot can climb 45 degrees slopes

Although the robot is still a prototype, it has been tested on the field. It managed to walk 10 km in 2.5 hours. It's a little slower than me (11km in 2h). But the robotic dog can carry 100 kg of luggage while I can't. You can see the 4-legged robot in the video below going through muddy forests, snowy slopes, ruins like brick piles and others. It can recover from perturbations (icy road or kicks from insane humans). It also has at least 4 different ways of walking (careful one leg at a time, walking, trotting (fast and slow) and running).

PetMan, the next project of Boston Dynamics
The PetMan bipedal robot

The robot is powered by a diesel engine, so it makes as much noise as a motorcycle, but it is not plugged to anything like many research robots.

I have seen many robots that can barely walk or barely run. My lab just got the HRP-4: the Rolls-Royce of humanoid robots, and it can't run even if you tried. So a legged robot that can walk and run in real conditions is quite unique. And Boston Dynamics also has a bipedal robot (just 2 legs) that can walk pretty fast and naturally in laboratory conditions.

Do you like fishes? You'll love the robot fish!

2) Why is it so unique?

Why a robot like Asimo or Nao will never be able to walk like this? Because a robot leg needs compliance to absord the shock of the steps. I can't even imagine letting Nao fall vertically on its legs from 15 cm on a hard floor. But if Nao was running, it is the kind of shocks it would need to endure. And don't forget all the vibrations that would screw up the electronics inside.

In the case of the BigDog robot, there are springs and dampers that absord the shocks (a lot like cars). The actuators are powered by hydraulic pumps, so they can give a lot of power to the legs, but basically the springs help the robot leg rebound at each step. This a very energy efficient way of walking that every legged animals are using.

In your body, the muscles and tendons have this compliance, which kind of means they are flexible and can follow the force to absord shocks. Another way to look at this is the Oak and the Reed. Usual robots are like the oaks in way more fragile, whereas the BigDog robot takes the strategy of the reed.

3 paragraphs is not too much to describe what will become for sure the next revolution in robotic hardware. My lab is working on it. Boston Dynamics is working on it. Aldebaran Robotics is working on it for their adult sized humanoid project Romeo. The DLR (German Space Agency) is using it to hit a robot arm with a baseball bat! It will allow robots to make hand-shakes, high-fives and every other kind of soft interactions with people. And Boston Dynamics are way ahead with their BigDog robot.

3) The BigDog Robot is highly autonomous

The robotic dog can either follow an operator with flashy retroreflector bands on its suits, or can be used as remote control robots. In either case, the robot is responsible for planning its own steps, avoiding obstacles and keeping balance at the right speed. Even the remote can only control the direction, the speed, and some movements light standing up or squatting.

BigDog robot parts

The robot uses a LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) to see the distance to obstacles or to the operator, and also have stereo cameras. Boston Dynamics is using the stereo image processing technology developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Mars Rovers on its robot, which I find really cool.

You can see in the video when the BigDog robot is going through a pile of bricks that it is not always an easy job to find the right place for its steps. Also, it has a very good balance, and I really don't know how they do that. Keeping balance in case of big perturbations is a really hot topic these days in robotic research, and they do it quite well.

As far as sensors go, the robot also has:

  • a heat sensor to monitor its temperature,
  • inertial sensors to measure its accelaration and detect falls, or know how far/fast it goes,
  • joint position and torque sensors to control all the joints
  • sensors for measuring hydraulic speed and temperature,
  • and a few others.

The robot has 69 sensors to monitor its "homeostasis" (quoted from one of their report), and help in the navigation and control of the many robotic parts.

4) The Robots of the Future?

I can't say for sure what robotics in the future will look like. But this type of robots sure is an appetizer. The notions of compliance, dynamic control and autonomy are in the center of modern research in robotics, and the BigDog robot is clearly going in the right direction.

All the materials (pictures and video) are given by Boston Dynamics. You can find more resource on the BigDog robot page from Boston Dynamics, and on their Youtube channel.

BigDog robot running

BigDog robot is running toward the future

5) Update November 2011: bigger Bigdog, and full humanoid Petman

Boston Dynamics is not taking any vacations! This summer, they released a new version of the Bigdog robot: the Alphadog robot. You can see a picture below.

Alphadog robot

The new robot dog: Alphadog

The Alphadog robot is bigger, stronger, and can stand back up by itself after a fall. It will be able to go further than its predecessor, and will make less noise.

As you can see, it will just be the same in better.

And next, they released a new video of Petman, using the same compliant technology as the dog. The bipedal robot became a full humanoid robot, looking pretty much like a Terminator... Again, see below for the robot's picture.

Petman bipedal robot

The brand new Petman, surely the most
advanced bipedal robot out there.

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