Kicked but still standing: Boston Dynamics’ new robot has a stunning sense of balance

Google-owned bot maker Boston Dynamics has added another leggy member to its family of fearsome robotic quadrupeds. This one’s called Spot, and its special talent is a killer sense of balance. Even as Boston Dynamics employees repeatedly kick the robot, it manages to stay standing.

For walking robots that are expected to tackle rough terrain, or strong wind gusts, the ability to keep from keeling over is an attractive quality. The 160-pound robot can jog along with its minder, and clamber up a slope and down with the grace of a mountain goat.

As is customary for the Waltham bot maker, Spot was introduced to the world via a YouTube video — just as humanoid Atlas, the galloping cheetah robot, Big Dog, and Little Dog each debuted. And the Internet responded with a collective shudder.

“It feels so wrong when they kick it,” YouTube commenter Gabriel Perren wrote in response to the video posting. It turns out Perren is not alone: German researchers have shown that humans respond with empathy when shown scenes of robots being hurt.

That impulse is missing in bot makers, it seems, who delight in kicking their robot creations.

Among the more resilient is Schaft, a humanoid from Japan that blew away the competition in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a contest where humanoid robots had to tackle an obstacle-course of mock-rescue tasks. (Among the challengers were versions of Boston Dynamics’ own humanoid, Atlas.) As this early video of this winner humanoid showed, Schaft’s makers also gave it the remarkable ability to stay upright even after being kicked. Loyal readers may remember that shortly after the DARPA trials, Google bought Schaft too.

“No robots were harmed in the making of this video,” Boston Dynamics claims as the reel comes to an end. No word on if robot egos were bruised, or if the robot is learning to kick back.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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