If you exist on the internet, odds are you’re familiar with the work of Boston Dynamics. The robot makers, once owned by Google, make wobbly legged machines, unsettling in their movements and uncanny in their ability to stay balanced, even when crossing ice or climbing hills.
BigDog is the best-known of these robots, an oversized quadruped. But there are others. Atlas captures the attention of much of robot-watching twitter last week, as the humanoid robot gracefully completed a backflip.
Lost in the cheers and panic over a coming SkyNet was new footage of another robot, one that the defense community might want to take a little more seriously. It’s the updated version of the dog-sized SpotMini, and it looks like nothing so much as a mutant-hunting dog from a lost X-Men franchise. Here’s a peek at the latest SpotMini:
Watch it again. Take a close look at the articulation in those legs, the way it bends and balances and then bounds away. Legged robots are compelling because they can go where people can, and smaller, animal-inspired robots can go the places that people can’t. It’s easy to imagine a camouflaged version of the SpotMini peeking under beds and around corners ahead of a unit going house-to-house, maybe with infrared vision alerting it to hiding people it may not otherwise find.
Watch it again. Yes, the robot is loud. In 2015, the Marines reportedly rejected a Boston Dynamics-designed packmule robot because it was too loud and risked giving away the positions of troops in the field. Earlier that same year, the Marines tested Boston Dynamics’ Spot dog-robot in door-kicking exercises, where the robot served as a mechanical partner that could step inside, then collapse out of the way as infantry ran in.
The new SpotMini is an iteration on an iteration of that Spot robot — a smaller, nimbler, robot. With just 24 seconds of teaser, it’s hard to know what kind of customer Boston Dynamics is looking at, or what other capabilities the robot has. But it’s worth thinking about these robots, agile and quadrupedal, as the kind of machines that might accompany squads into the field in the future, seeing what people can’t, transmitting that data back to support staff, and maybe even probing IEDs before they kill a human.
The two-legged robots are great for science fiction, but it’s the four-legged machines I’d look to as actual, near-future capability.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.