Headless, Not Brainless

CAMBRIDGE, MA - OCTOBER 11:  Massachusetts Ins...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Boston Dynamics, an engineering and robotics design company, has been around since Marc Raibert split the company off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in
1992. With projects like Big Dog, SquishBot and RiSE, any news from the company is likely
to make hundreds of technology fans desire an advanced eng ineering degree so they, too,
can build robots. One fairly recent unveiling is likely to change the landscape of national
security, particularly in the field of military equipment testing. The Protection Ensemble Test
Mannequin, or PETMAN, is a six-foot, 180-pound bipedal robot that is able to balance, walk
and even do pushups all on its own.

PETMAN is based largely on the technology developed for BigDog, another Boston Dynamics
robot. BigDog is a rough-terrain robot that’s able to walk, run, climb and carry heavy loads.
With four articulating legs resembling those of an animal, BigDog is able to balance despite
attempts to push it over and it can even recover from a nasty spill on ice. Developed for
DARPA, BigDog was developed to provide a robot that can traverse the same terrain as a
human or animal, providing essential equipment carrying services in places vehicles can’t
normally reach. The same systems used to provide BigDog with the ability to control each of
its legs to prevent it from falling over and navigate difficult terrain has been used in PETMAN,
though it’s unlikely that PETMAN will be seeing any frontline use.

PETMAN, resembling a headless android, took Boston Dynamics nearly two-and-a-half years
to complete from design to the final build. The main purpose of PETMAN is to test the clothing
being developed for soldiers for chemical warfare protection, helping researchers see how a
human’s range of movement might be impacted by various types of equipment. The robot’s
ability to emulate a wide variety of human movement is a definite boon for an industry that’s
dedicated to providing protection to soldiers in hostile areas. Testers can simulate a wide
variety of actions a normal soldier will take in the course of their duties, including squatting,
twisting and dropping down to one knee, allowing them to see how a soldier might act while
using protective gear. The robot even has the ability to sweat, providing even more realistic
conditions that will likely be encountered by soldiers wearing chemical weapons gear.

Boston Dynamics, a hub of mechanical, electronic and software engineering, has a short but
brilliant history of producing awe-inspiring robotic creations for the United States military.
Using technology developed for BigDog, a quadrupedal robot, PETMAN has been developed
to provide lifelike simulations of real world movements during chemical protection clothing
testing. Able to walk, crawl and perform many other equipment-stressing motions–including
sweating–PETMAN will give equipment testers a whole new level of accuracy in their testing,

giving them an even greater ability to develop comfortable, functional protective clothing that
they can be assured will not unduly restrict a soldier’s range of movement.

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