The red-eyed humanoid robots in the Terminator movies don't look half as scary as PETMAN, the headfree machines that can run on treadmills now being built for the U.S. Army. Instead of turning a laser-like gaze your way Schwarzenegger-style, the new robot built by Boston Dynamics intimidates by running, jumping and doing other uncanny activities like maintaining a human body temperature and sweating a little. Also, push-ups. The acronym PETMAN stands for the Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin, and rather than training for battle, it tests out battle-ready clothing for human soldiers. (Kind of like those chair testing machines at Ikea.) Instead of a head, a blinking red light sits on PETMAN's shoulders like some sort of 21-century version of the Headless Horseman from "The Legend of Sleep Hollow." Remember: it's only to test out clothes. The United States military does not have plans to strap cannons to its arms, plug it into Siri and create a voice-controlled army that can takeover the Earth. Yet…
PETMAN is impressive, but the sum total of Boston Dynamics' robotic creations are downright jaw-dropping. You might've seen the videos of BigDog that knocked the socks off of gadget bloggers three years ago. As with PETMAN, Boston Dynamics developed the animal-like quadruped with some funding from Darpa ($10 million to be exact) and the demo featured in the outdoor video below is capable of carrying 340-pound loads over rough, uneven terrain. "It feels so 'animal' that I almost feel bad when they hit it to demonstrate how it regains balance on its own," wrote Jesus Diaz at Gizmodo.
Boston Dynamics is also working on a frankly creepy creation called the SquishBot. With the help of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the team hopes to combine robotics and chemistry in order "to design systems that can transform themselves from hard to soft and from soft to hard, upon command." Boston Dyamnics says that the goal will ultimately be to create a system that will allow the morphing robots to alter their size by as much as ten-fold. "These creatures will be like soft animals that can squeeze themselves through small openings and into tight places," reads Boston Dynamics' website. Believe it or not, the bug bot is also Darpa funded.
The list goes on to include other insane projects, many of which resemble bigger, more rugged versions of the nimble BigDog. While videos of robots that can run and jump are great for blogging — especially PETMAN and all of the easy Terminator references it allows — it's unclear if the Defense Department will ever actually use them. Darpa, which acts as the Pentagon's de facto research and development department, spends hundreds of millions of dollars funding all kinds of outlandish, futuristic projects like these every year, arguably a sunk cost for a cash-strapped government. Then again, they are the same guys that invented the internet.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.