With human-like movements, PETMAN will help the military assess the performance of their chemical protection suits.

Look out cute and cuddly Nao. Get out of the way ever-attentive Asimo, a new robot’s on the march and he can smash both of you and your girly-man voices with his pinky – if he had a pinky, that is, or even hands for that matter. The Terminator-looking PETMAN even has a red light to stare down its soon-to-be roadkill. As it walks, it carries its six-foot, 180 pound frame with an imposing swagger. It can run, do push-ups, and perform other movements with an impressive likeness to the human motions it’s supposed to emulate. The tough guy even keeps its balance when pushed from the side.

PETMAN is Boston Dynamics’ test dummy – Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin – for the military. No, they’re not creating an army of Terminators to replace our troops, but using it to test chemical protection suits for soldiers – at least that's what's being widely reported. I couldn't find the specific DARPA program, and while Boston Dynamics says PETMAN will perform "suit-stressing calisthenics during exposure to chemical warfare agents," one has to wonder if there are bigger plans for the robot than a chemical bath. Part of a $26.3M program, the advances gleaned from PETMAN could benefit DARPA's RE-NET program that's developing neural interfaces for prosthetics. Or we can get really conspiracy theorist here and say DARPA's hoping to one day put a gun in PETMAN's capable hands, and eyes on its head, laser-sighting, night vision...anything a kick butt robot soldier might need to crush the enemy. For the time being we'll let DARPA stick with their chemical suit story. But we know better than that, right?

Boston Dynamics made it a point to build a robot that reproduced human movements with a high degree of realism so that the suits could be accurately evaluated. When fitted with the suits, PETMAN will actually have a physiologic control apparatus to control temperature, humidity, and – get this – sweating. In lieu of volunteers who would readily report that the quinuclidinyl benzilate did in fact get a bit under his collar, I’d say PETMAN will come in quite handy. Watch PETMAN flex its muscles in the following video.

Boston Dynamics specializes in building robots which are heavy duty enough to lend a helping hand to our soldiers on the battlefield. They recently trotted out Alpha Dog, the four-legged robot meant to be the soldier’s best friend by shouldering his gear up to 400 pounds across rough terrain. Like Alpha Dog, PETMAN is being built for DARPA. It took Boston Dynamics 13 months to design the anthropomorphic robot and another 17 months to build it.

I can see it now.

A chemical wave come crashing down on PETMAN, melting its suit and exposing its unearthly metal skeleton underneath. For a moment the robot is down, motionless…then…the red glow flickers back to life, and begins to brighten….

[image credits: Boston Dynamics]

images: Boston Dynamics
video: Boston Dynamics

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.