Boston Dynamics was acquired by Google in December 2013 as one of several robotics companies bought by the search engine giant. The robotics powerhouse has a stable of incredible robots, including the ATLAS anthropomorphic robot that competed at the DARPA trial last month.
As far back as 2010 my students were bringing in videos of the BigDog for current event assignments. Based on the idea that more than half of the Earth is inaccessible to wheeled vehicles Boston Dynamics worked to create a robot that could walk anywhere. The robot sought to copy the multi-jointed legs of animals to allow for more compliance near the ground and more actuation near the top of the legs.
Complex control algorithms allow BigDog to follow a human wearing reflective markers through the field at a fixed distance. The machine controls position in the X, Y and Z directions and also through roll, pitch and yaw controls. A one cylinder, two stroke go-kart engine gives the BigDog approximately 15 horsepower. A huge array of sensors analyze and control position, battery voltage, pressure, engine temp, joint angles and forces.
Google has built a large robotics team built upon the work of other companies but the long term goal still isn't clear. Several theories are currently are floating around the internet, from people worried about Skynet and Terminators to people expecting the flying cars and jetpacks.
My current guess is that Google wants to use these robots to gather more data. The Google Street View cars do a fantastic job of showing viewers streets, buildings and houses, but they're only getting a fraction of the world to show.
BigDog and LittleDog could climb hills and ditches to give a full view of a region. The SandFlea can hop up to 30 feet to clear obstacles and could give a high view of a building or subdivision. Doing a virtual climb up Mount Everest after a robot has completely mapped it is as close as I'll ever get to ascending the highest peaks in the world.
If asteroid mining is going to be a new avenue to collect natural resources then a Google robot could give a full visual of the asteroid's surface. The sky (or underwater seabed, or the vast expanse of space) really is the limit.
This is one of a series of recent entries about Google and Amazon’s different approaches to advanced robotics. Here are a few more articles you might want to read:
• Google's BigDog robot climbs and balances
• Amazon Prime Air - A Moonshot Project
• Google's SCHAFT robot wins DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials 2013
• Amazon's Robotic Order Fulfillment