To be useful to humans, legged robots must navigate the world much as humans do. In fall 2018, a four-legged robot named ANYmal explored the tunnels below Zurich, Switzerland in a test for what could be the future of maintenance work.

ANYmal, the creation of Switzerland-based ANYbotics and the ETH Zurich Robotic Systems Lab, resembles the BigDog family of robots, its distant North American cousins. Like the Boston Dynamics creations, ANYmal is bouncing mess of limbs that results in a sort of unsettling gait. Special actuators and gait-balancing software enable the whole production, and if need be, a limb can rotate a 360 degrees. This creates the combined effect of turning bouncy legs under the torso into long spindly legs extending outward from it.

With a speed of around 2 mph, ANymal isn’t winning any races, but it has endurance. Its battery holds power for three hours and the robot can lower itself onto a charging station when it needs to power up. Weighing 66 pounds, ANYmal isn’t light, but could be carried into place on a small vehicle or by a couple of people. Its limbs can push buttons and push open doors, though it would likely take extra modifications to get an ANYmal to manipulate doorknobs.

For the tunnel exploration, the 20-inch tall robot was lowered into place, and then guided by a joystick. Autonomous movement is possible, but using a remote control allowed the human observers to keep a closer eye on what, exactly, the machine was doing underground. The robot normally navigates by LIDAR and 3D mapping of the surrounding environment. To better comprehend the terrain in low-light environments, it is also exploring haptic sensors at the end of its feet, providing a sense of touch. All of this could prove critical as some U.S. Army leaders believe future wars will take place underground and in tunnels.

ANYmal’s current projects include tunnel exploration and oil platform inspections. For the military observer, the existence of ANYmal offers three worthwhile trends. First, dog-shaped robots are going to evolve as industrial tools, and in all the areas that industrial work overlaps with military functioning, like base maintenance or ship inspections, there is likely an easy role for these robots to take on. Second, as military forces move in human-built environments they should consider the possibility that remote or autonomous machines, legged as well as winged, could also be traversing in the same way. Finally, enterprising commanders looking to incorporate robots as military scouts or even armed tools should be paying close attention to what’s being developed in the commercial world, since adversaries without dedicated national budgets are likely looking in the same places.

Watch a video of the ANYmal below:

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.

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