Technology First Look

Boston Dynamics new robot is kind of scary (+video)

It can run, it can jump, and it may give some people nightmares. It's a new robot named Handle. 

With the ability to travel at 9 mph and jumps 4 feet vertically, Handle shows the new possibilities of what robots could become.
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Forget about the kind of robots you know – metallic creatures of average human size and with heads and limbs mimicking those of humans. Boston Dynamics on Monday showed the world that robots can be thoroughly different. 

The Google-owned robotics company rolled out its two-wheeled, four-legged hybrid robot, named “Handle,” in a video uploaded to YouTube on Monday. With the ability to travel at 9 miles per hour and jump 4 feet vertically, Handle offers new possibilities for what robots could become. 

"This is the debut presentation of what I think will be a nightmare-inducing robot, if you're anything like me," Boston Dynamics chief executive officer Marc Raibert said at a presentation to investors at the end of January, drawing laughter.

The six-foot-five-inch giant, which runs on electric power, can indeed be a bit intimidating. Jumping over barriers and onto tables and lifting 100 pounds, Handle shows much grace, speed, and agility in the company’s 96-second demonstration video.

The key, according to the robotics start-up, which has been known for its massive war dogs and unflappable box-carrying robots, lies in Handle's use of both wheels and legs, which enables Handle “to have the best of both worlds.” 

“Handle uses many of the same dynamics, balance and mobile manipulation principles found in the quadruped and biped robots we build,” Boston Dynamics said in the description of the video. “But with only about 10 actuated joints, it is significantly less complex. Wheels are efficient on flat surfaces while legs can go almost anywhere.”

With a range of 15 miles on one battery charge, Handle is also capable of scooting down the stairs and steep slopes, which Mr. Raibert attributed to the robot’s “very dynamic system that is balancing itself all the time and has a lot of knowledge of how to throw its weight around.” However, other than scooting around on its wheels, the video does not show the new robot walking, as the Guardian pointed out. 

Handle is the latest work from the firm after reports emerged last March that its parent company, Google’s Alphabet, is putting it up for sale.

Though Boston Dynamics has frequently released eye-catching videos of its robots, including engineers jogging alongside real-looking robotics dogs or prodding human-sized robots with hockey sticks, Google cited the firm’s inability to spin a profit and concerns over the frightening implications prompted by its humanoid robotic innovation. 

"There is excitement from the tech press,” Google X communications director Courtney Hohne said in an email obtained by Bloomberg in March. “But we are also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans' jobs."

After acquiring the start-up in 2013, Google had hoped it could also produce a marketable robotic product in the short term in addition to its long-term projects. But that hasn't happened. 

In the past, the company has defended its methods and ability to deliver products with down-to-earth marketability.

"I firmly believe the only way to get to a product is through the work we are doing in Boston,” Raibert said in a meeting with Google at the time of the acquisition. “[I] don’t think we are the pie-in-the-sky guys as much as everyone thinks we are."