Handle the Future – can you handle where we’re going?
Handle is a four legged, two wheeled research robot by Boston Dynamics that can run, jump, weave, climb, lift, carry and just about anything else it’s creators can think of. Watch out for the latest version playing center for the Celtics in 2017 (just kidding!!). Called “parkour on wheels” by TechCrunch, it is the latest generation robot in the Boston Dynamics lineup, and it’s pretty amazing.
I can’t help being constantly reminded as I watch this eerily lifelike design going through its paces of some kind of human on crazy roller-blades skating backwards everywhere, including down a flight of stair and a snow covered slope, all with reckless abandon…
Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 by Marc Raibert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who with his colleagues worked on developing robots that could run and maneuver like animals. It is headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA, and now wholly owned by Google, Inc., who acquired it in 2013. Its most famous creation to date was BigDog, which was a four-legged – or quadruped – robot built for the US military with funding coming from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). BigDog is the most advanced rough-terrain robot in the world, designed to go anywhere you can imagine.
Their robots combine artificial intelligence (AI), mobility, agility (watch them climb over natural obstacles in a typical woodland area!), dexterity and speed. The on-board sensors combined with AI give them capabilities far beyond what we were amazed at, just a few years ago.
Forget the fantasy of Star Wars! This is the real thing. Watch LS3, the Legged Squad Support robot come charging out of the trees and you’ll think you really are on the Hollywood set for the latest George Lucas creation!
Other robots in development or already in production include LS3, Altlas, Petman, designed for testing chemical protection clothing, Cheetah, which can surpass 29 mph, BigDog, SandFlea, an 11 pound robot that can jump 30 feet into the air and land successfully and intact, Rhex, a small, six-legged rough terrain robot, Rise, a six-legged robot that can climb walls, trees and fences, Spot, an electric powered and hydraulically actuated quadruped that can go virtually anywhere, its super cute little fully electric brother, SpotMini and, of course, LittleDog, which they call a “legged and learning” quadruped robot.
So… with all these amazing machines, running from fossil-fuel powered monsters to fully electric models, what’s the big deal with Handle?
Handle is a quadruped like many of its “cousins,” but this one is very different. The front legs are very similar to what we’ve grown used to in robots produced by Boston Dynamics, but the back legs, rather than ending in those goat-like “hooves,” are fitted with motorized wheels. This is an amazing “creature!”
Designed to handle packages in a warehouse or similar (hence the name), this is their newest research robot, standing 6 feet 6 inches tall, able to travel at 9 mph, and also able to jump four feet straight up. (The record by a human for a vertical jump is about 5 ½ feet.) It has about a 15 mile range on a single battery charge.
Unlike a number of its similarly sized cousins, this one uses all electric power for both its electric and hydraulic actuators. While it uses most of the familiar dynamics, balance, and mobile control principles of the other quadruped and biped models, it has fewer actuated joints, making it a lot less complex.
Legs work very well on rough terrain or anywhere else, while wheels are very useful on flat surfaces. In Handle, they have combined wheels and legs, making Handle a pretty amazing machine that can even navigate uneven ground up on its wheels with ease.
With standard legs on one end and legs with motorized wheels on the other, you might think this robot is a bit unwieldy, having to basically half gallop, half roll along, but prepare for a surprise. Handle rares up like a wild mustang to balance perfectly on its wheels, and then rolls along with perfectly balanced ease over terrain that will shock you when you see it.
This robot moves along with fluid smoothness up on its wheels, like a kid on a skateboard. Just like the kid on the skateboard, it expertly and effortlessly weaves around obstacles, and jumps over barricades and onto platforms with ease. It can stand still on its wheels, spin in a circle, lift 100 pounds with ease, race up steep slopes and stop on a dime, without falling over or even showing the slightest sign of a balance problem. Not even stairs are an issue for this robot while up on its wheels.
Where is this going to take us? Some people find it fascinating, as I do, while others find it a bit scary. There are lots of comments about these advanced robots and the imaginary Skynet of Terminator fame, where artificial intelligence has gone to war against humanity and virtually wiped humans out, except for those the machines keep as slaves.
While it’s understandable that the uninformed might find AI a bit scary, or any of us might find the fictional ideas of AI fighting humans fun for a movie night, the reality is that we aren’t even close to moral thought where machines could decide to rebel against humans. The benefits of AI in robotics, however, are limited only by our imaginations. AI does all the heavy lifting for us when it comes to analyzing and processing data, and developing new ideas.
AI doesn’t sleep like we do, and does not forget anything. That means that all the time we are testing new robotic/AI combinations, these computers are learning more and more about what they can do in the environments we put them in, adding to our knowledge base and giving us new ideas for new opportunities to extend our technology.
Handle isn’t really scary. It IS amazing technology, simply loaded with “wow” factor.
Check it out… It’s pretty cool.
Please share your thoughts in the comments.