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Posted in: Developing Perspectives (February 2014)

Night Meeting

By Bryan Bergeron

There's a lot more to the story, of course, but the metaphor of legged and wheeled vehicles passing in the night seems relevant to the Google-Boston Dynamics deal. Of course, Google is the company behind the driverless car that promises to make the steering wheel as useful as your appendix. Then, there's Boston Dynamics, the creator of the Army Mule, Big Dog, Cheetah, and other four-legged robots that can manage rough terrain that would stop a wheeled vehicle in its tracks. If you check out the Army Mule on YouTube, you'll hear that the gas-powered engine needs a bit of muffling before it can be used in a stealth operation, but otherwise, it seems up to the task of hauling gear.

I don't see multi-legged vehicles replacing the fourwheeled car any time soon, but cars aren't the only vehicles in use today. More and more "personal" vehicles are making their way onto sidewalks, in stores, and in the malls. These motorized carts and wheel chairs often require the user to detour onto ramps because they can't navigate steps or escalators. Perhaps there's something in a multi-legged vehicle that would provide value over and above the transportation provided by an ordinary motorized buggy.

For military purposes, there's the obvious advantage of a pack mule that can carry heavy loads and, eventually, serve as a vehicle for soldiers. For the soldiers who lose one or both legs in battle, riding a weaponized robotic mule into battle might be one way to contribute to the fight. For civilian purposes, imagine the spinoffs of the legged technology — from chairs that gently raise or lower an elderly or injured person, to walking assistants that either carry or guide the person to their destination.

One thing's for certain — we're bound to see spinoffs of the technology appear at our favorite online suppliers. I can't wait to get my hands on what I can only imagine is the sensor technology used by the Mule to maintain balance. Then, there's the camera system used to track the terrain. I don't know what sort of gasoline-powered generator is used in the Mule, but I'm sure that I can think of ways to repurpose the technology for other projects.

For now, I have no desire to be transformed into a bionic Centaur, but in another 30 years or so when my joints are arthritic from all those marathons, I may have a different opinion. It's good to have options, and that's certain to come from the Google-Boston Dynamics venture. NV