Back in late 2009 Boston Dynamics revealed it was working on a humanoid robot that would test protective clothing for the military. Having already amazed the world three years earlier with the lifelike balancing capabilities of its quadruped BigDog, this would be the company's first bipedal robot. It was an ambitious project, but it appears the work has paid off. The robot's eerily realistic body movements are made all the more convincing now that its mechanical nature is hidden by a chemical protection suit.
In order to test the durability of hazmat suits, the robot would have to perform rigorous tests like running, jumping, crouching, and crawling. When the project was first announced it was almost too ambitious to be believed, but the company has been making steady progress over the years. In 2011 it published a video of an incomplete PETMAN (Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin) performing realistic motions that seem to leapfrog high tech robots developed over the course of decades in Japan.
Although tethered by a power cable, PETMAN's balance is more dynamic and natural than other bipeds, and it outdoes other humanoid robots with its skin. The robot not only has sensors embedded in its skin that will detect leaks in the suit, but it also artificially perspires in order to maintain a micro-climate inside the clothing. The idea is to precisely replicate the real conditions inside a suit that might affect its eventual wearer:
Boston Dynamics says that PETMAN has been delivered to a testing facility where it is undergoing validation experiments. Soon the robot will be installed inside of an exposure chamber where it will be tested against the likes of sarin and mustard gas.
It may not be ready to replace a human soldier on the battlefield, but PETMAN is doing its part to save lives by significantly improving how chemical protection suits are tested. Meanwhile, its big brother ATLAS is gearing up for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which promises to be one of the most exciting robot events ever.
The PETMAN project, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense Chemical and Biological Defense program, was aided by Measurement Technology Northwest, Smith Carter, CUH2A, and HHI.
Source: Boston Dynamics