Four-wheeled robot that can hop 25 feet is in the works

Builder of BigDog robot making Precision Urban Hopper for the U.S. government

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A U.S. company is building a four-wheeled robot that will be able to jump over obstacles and aid military troops in combat.

Boston Dynamics, a Waltham, Mass.-based engineering company, has been awarded a contract by the U.S. government-funded Sandia National Laboratories to build what it's calling the Precision Urban Hopper. The machine, according to Boston Dynamics, is designed to have "one mighty leg" in addition to its four wheels.

That leg should enable the robot to hop 25 feet into the air, enabling it to jump over tall obstacles.

"The Precision Urban Hopper is part of a broad effort to bolster the capabilities of troops and special forces engaged in urban combat, giving them new ways to operate unfettered in the urban canyon," said Jon Salton, program manager at Sandia National Laboratories, in a statement. "The Boston Dynamics concept, along with their skills and experience, are ideal to help us with this important program."

Boston Dynamics, which is a spin-off from MIT, is possibly best known for its BigDog robot. With four animal-like legs, the BigDog is designed to traverse through rough terrain, walking, running, climbing and carrying heavy loads.

Scientists have been trying to toss aside the idea of robots that move with nothing but jerky movements and stiff-legged walks.

Last summer, researchers at Tufts University reported that they were developing soft, squishy robots that can squeeze into spaces a fraction of their normal size and then morph back into their original size and shape. And the researchers said they plan on replacing the synthetic materials used to traditionally make the robots with biological materials that are biodegradable.

And a little more than a year ago, American Honda Motor Co. showed off a humanoid robot that can climb stairs, run 4 mph, and may someday help care for elderly and disabled people. Asimo, a robot that has been more than 20 years in the making, is able to walk forward and backward, and climb up and down stairs.

One artificial intelligence researcher goes past predicting that someday robots will take care of the elderly and ill.

David Levy, a British artificial intelligence researcher, said in a previous interview with Computerworld that robotics will make such dramatic advances in the coming years that humans will be marrying them by the year 2050.

Robots will become so human-like -- having intelligent conversations, displaying emotions and responding to human emotions -- that they'll be very much like a new race of people, said Levy, who authored the book "Love and Sex with Robots."

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