By Keerthi Chandrashekar ( | First Posted: Dec 06, 2012 09:04 PM EST

The BigDog robot from Boston Dynamics (Photo : Boston Dynamics)

A robot's true purpose (barring any philosophical Star Trek Data-like discourse) is to aid human beings. From carrying heavy loads, to performing potentially hazardous tasks, robots are a crux of human society. In the future, they should be able to do do more, thanks to companies like Boston Dynamics and its BigDog project.

BigDog is a rough, all-terrain robot with four legs that mimic animals by recycling energy from one step to the next and absorbing shock. The robot measures 3-feet long, 2.5-feet long, and weighs in at 240 pounds. The BigDog currently travels at 4 miles per hour, can climb slopes of 35 degrees, and can carry a 340 pound load, according to Boston Dynamics. The robot has also apparently set a world record for traveling 12.8 miles without having to stop or refuel.

"BigDog is the alpha male of the Boston Dynamics robots. It is a rough-terrain robot that walks, runs, climbs and carries heavy loads," reads the BigDog page on Boston Dynamics' website.

Watch this video showcasing three generations of BigDog, including the robot pup.

BigDog's development receives funding from DARPA's Tactical Technology Office. Its defining characteristic should be its ability to travel over previously-inaccessible terrain for robots.

"The goal is to achieve animal-like mobility on rough and rugged terrain, terrain too difficult for any existing vehicle," opens the paper titled "BigDog, the Rough-Terrain Quadruped Robot."

In order to achieve such results, Boston Dynamics has programmed the BigDog to adapt to its terrain in two different ways. First off, the robot calculates its foot placement to better situate the robot's body in relation to the ground's plane and gravity. Second, the robot can adjust its height and orientation depending on the terrain. This means the BigDog can lean forward when walking up slopes and backwards while walking down them.

The BigDog does still face some hurdles, however. Researchers behind the project cite four key areas that still need to be improved.

The BigDog still has some trouble in some environments and requires greater traction and limb mobility. BigDog also cannot right itself - a serious issue if this 240 pound beast falls on its side. The robot also relies on a human operator for control. Boston Dynamics hopes to install computer vision, LIDAR and GPS to give the robot more autonomy. Last, but not least, the machine is incredibly noisy, and if it is to provide real-world services, it will have to be quieter.

There's no doubt this machine would have a place in the battlefield. With improved mobility and the speed to keep up with humans, BigDog could provide a valuable pack-mule service to soldiers, increasing the amount of equipment at their disposal. In everyday use, the robot would be a valuable aid for the physically handicapped and those who need a heavy load carried. The robot could carry furniture up flights of stairs, and even bring something as simple as the groceries home for an elderly lady on a stroll. There are limitless possibilities for a load-carrying robot that can operate autonomously.

If Boston Dynamics succeeds in its goal of developing "a robot that can go anywhere people and animals can go" BigDog may one day find its technology in different sized variants that can be tailored to people's needs.

For a slideshow on BigDog from Boston Dynamics, click here.

Check back tomorrow for another installment of our Applied Robotics series titled: "Applied Robotics: How Robots Could Change Life - Deceptive Robots Fool Each Other."

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