“WildCat,” the newest robot from Boston Dynamics, marks a significant technological advance: the four-legged bot can sprint, climb over unforgiving terrain, and dodge obstacles.
This new technology builds on previous work from the company. In 2008, Boston Dynamics released a paper on “BigDog,” its robotic creation that, though slow, could traverse rough terrain and right itself if flipped over. The company explained that part of the goal of the new technology was to partner with soldiers in exploring inaccessible areas of the world.
The next robotic incarnation, in 2012, picked up speed. “Cheetah” set a land-speed record for a robot, reaching 29 mph while tethered and on a treadmill. WildCat has BigDog’s untethered capabilities as well as the advanced speed and agility of Cheetah, though it’s about half the speed of the tethered model.
The projects are funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) as part of the Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, which aims to develop more agile robots to traverse uneven terrain.
Boston Dynamics has been clear about the potential military uses of its robots. With a rapid increase in drones and new technology for the military, however, some have raised concerns about the pros and cons of robots like WildCat.
The four-legged robot is designed to move over any and all obstacles, as explained by Diligent Media Corporation. The bot’s makers have tested it on ice, sand, snow, gravel, and a host of other surfaces that might trip up less advanced robot.
New technology allowed engineers to make this creation significantly faster than BigDog. While the first incarnation of an untethered quadruped only reached 4 mph, WildCat can bound and gallop at up to 16 mph.
The robot’s agility comes from a biomimetic stride and an articulated spine. Those advances allow WildCat to stay upright, even if it’s thrown off balance, and turn smoothly.
Potential for Good
As with most new technology, there are numerous pros and cons to consider in putting this robot to use. Boston Dynamics has been proactive in suggesting how WildCat, as well as the company’s other robots, are positive developments.
First and foremost, the company hopes to see its robots used to aid the military. According to SingularityHub, WildCat may be used for humanitarian missions or emergency response needs. Because the robot is able to carry large loads as well as sprint, it would be ideal for reaching soldiers in need of supplies or help. Using its flexible spine, the robot would be able to zigzag and avoid obstacles or dangers, if necessary.
WildCat and other robots from Boston Dyanmics also have the ability to go where larger vehicles cannot. Missions up steep slopes, into small spaces, or across dangerous open stretches might be ideal for a remotely operated robot like WildCat.
On the other hand, some people have raised concerns about this new technology. NBC reported on the possibility of DARPA funding robots for gunnery platforms, which may worry those who feel that guns should stay in non-robotic hands.
Wildcat is also incredibly fast for a robot: at 16 mph, it can catch most humans. In addition, its eerily natural gait, approximating that of a big cat, has caused some observers to feel ill at ease in partnering with the robot. International Business Times reporting that Boston Dynamics’ creations looked like something “straight out of a dystopian science-fiction film.”
Finally, with new technology moving so quickly, some worry that robots like WildCat will come to replace humans, whether in the military or civilian domain.
Predicting technology’s future use isn’t easy, which can be unsettling. Drones, for instance, were initially meant for the military, but today Amazon is piloting a program to use that technology for delivery services. Of course, that isn’t necessarily cause for fear, but it highlights our inability to predict exactly how today’s machines will change in coming years.
It will take time to sort out WildCat’s pros and cons, but the new technology undoubtedly has the potential to transform our military, if not our lives beyond that realm.