Sauntering toward you like a mechanized zombie is the Army’s newest recruit: a robot with a blinking red light where its head should be.
That’s the PETMAN, the latest creation of Boston Dynamics, the robotics shop best known for its eerily lifelike BigDog, a quadrupedal robot that wants to carry troops’ gear. The PETMAN, in development for years, is built like a human being, walks autonomously on two legs while pumping its arms like a person, and resists efforts by Boston Dynamics engineers to push it over.
As recently as 2009, the PETMAN — or Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin — was little more than a circuit board connected to hydraulics that terminated in mannequin feet. Now it weighs 180 pounds, looks like the Terminator with the skin burned off, walks much faster than any non-28 Days Later zombie and can do a push-up. In the new video above, it also kind of looks like it can perform the Super Bowl Shuffle.
PETMAN isn’t supposed to be a robo-mule. Boston Dynamics sells it as a way to “simulate how a soldier stresses protective clothing under realistic conditions,” including wearing heavy chemical weapons gear. Lest anyone think the Terminator comparison is far fetched, the company assures that PETMAN’s ersatz “human physiology” means it will be “sweating when necessary.” A headless robot that sweats.
That points to a benign path for the robo-zombie. A robotic simulation of human physiological conditions — with parts that “mov[e] dynamically like a real person,” in the company phrase — could open the door to new innovations in prosthetics. Darpa already has a big push to introduce subtle neural sensations into prosthetic limbs for the most realistic feel possible. The PETMAN might be a boon to that effort.
Of course, the PETMAN could use a prosthesis of its own, since it still doesn’t have a head. Even the Octavia robot developed for the Navy has a cherubic face built out of white plastic. The PETMAN’s remorseless flashing red light atop its shoulders is anything but soothing. Which points to another potential use for the robot: scaring the hell out of an enemy.