28 May 2010

LittleDog and BigDog walking robots – Could they work on Mars?

Posted by Ryan Anderson

If you haven’t seen these videos of experimental new walking robots developed by Boston Dynamics and  DARPA, you really need to. They are impressive and quite creepy in how similar the robot movements mimic a living creature.

Pretty awesome eh? But would robots like this work on Mars? Well, as you could hear in the BigDog video, it runs on a go-kart engine, so that wouldn’t work on Mars. But, in the lab it appeared to run on electricity while plugged in, and LittleDog appeared to run on a battery. I suspect it takes a lot more energy to walk than to use wheels to move the same sized robot, so improved sourced of energy would be a must-have for a Mars version of these.

Mars is a much more difficult environment than the earth, particularly in terms of moving parts on robots due to the extreme cold. Also, working at such cold temperatures would probably mean re-designing the hydraulics so they don’t freeze. But, if a robot like these were used on Mars, it wouldn’t need to move nearly as fast. It would still have to have reflexes to avoid falling over, but it could go much slower than the ones in the videos.

The closest analog to these robots that I’ve seen for space exploration is the ATHLETE platform, a six-legged robot being developed at JPL. It’s slow, but it it has some similar capabilities. I think it is remote controlled rather than autonomous though.

I’d love to see what would happen if the Boston Dynamics and JPL teams got together and designed a Mars or Moon rover. In the meantime, here’s a final video about ATHLETE.*

*You’ll notice that he refers to going to the moon in a decade or so. I’m not sure if ATHLETE was funded by Constellation, but I hope that it continues to be developed even if Constellation is canceled.