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Innovation Economy

Agency of change for region

Funding from Darpa fuels many of area’s most futuristic projects

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Columnist / February 7, 2010

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If you are hiking in the woods of Waltham’s Prospect Hill Park and hear what sounds like the distant whine of an extra-loud chain saw, do not be alarmed. Head toward the noise, and you may encounter one of the world’s most sophisticated walking robots. Big Dog, a canine-like cargo-bot developed by Boston Dynamics Inc., occasionally tromps through the trees on testing missions. Two summers ago, loaded up with extra gasoline, it meandered along for almost 13 miles without stopping.

Last Monday, Boston Dynamics announced it had landed a $32 million grant from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop the next generation of Big Dog, a robot that will be capable of carrying 400 pounds of equipment for a squad of Marines, traveling at least 20 miles, and automatically following a human leader.

“Its primary task is to carry stuff,’’ says Robert Mandelbaum, the Darpa program manager overseeing the project, “but we want this to be a complete game-changer,’’ able to perform other tasks like recharging batteries as it travels, loading and unloading its own cargo, and one day even walking out in front of a squad to survey the terrain ahead.

New England is home to one of the biggest clusters of robotics research and development on the planet, and the most futuristic stuff, whether at academic institutions like MIT or companies like Boston Dynamics and iRobot Corp., is funded by Darpa, the same government agency that helped cultivate the computer network that grew into the Internet, stealth aircraft, and the Saturn V rocket that delivered men to the moon.

Locally, Darpa gave Burlington-based iRobot its first major research grant to develop what became the PackBot, a remotely driven robot that can be outfitted with a camera and manipulator arm; more than 2,900 have been built and delivered to police departments and military units, where they’re used for tasks like disposing of bombs and detecting hazardous materials. Darpa funding has supported Foster-Miller Inc.’s development of its similar TALON robot, and it has trickled in to companies like Hydroid Inc., a Pocasset maker of torpedo-like autonomous underwater vehicles. The agency has also put money into DEKA Research and Development Corp.’s work on a prosthetic hand capable of picking up a grape without squishing it.

“You can see the imprint of Darpa funding all around the robotics cluster here, in universities and at companies,’’ says Helen Greiner, the iRobot cofounder who is now running a new robotics start-up, CyPhy Works Inc. of Framingham (which last week announced a $1.75 million round of venture capital). The imprint could become even more noticeable with the recent hiring of Gill Pratt, a former robotics professor at MIT and Olin College, to dole out money from his new post at Darpa’s Defense Sciences Office.

At Boston Dynamics, behind the locked doors and the signs indicating that cameras are forbidden, the company’s 56 employees are working on several simultaneous robotics projects - only some of which chief executive Marc Raibert can talk about. RiSE is a six-legged robot with a beaver-like tail that can climb straight up walls - 25 “micro-hooks’’ on each foot engage with textured surfaces such as concrete to give RiSE traction. (It couldn’t ascend a smooth surface like glass, Raibert acknowledges.) SquishBot, with its tubular shape, is designed to go through a hole no more than 10 millimeters in diameter. LittleDog, a battery-powered, Chihuahua-sized bot, is used by academic labs (including one at MIT) to develop better software for traversing various types of terrain.

Raibert says the company’s two biggest projects are the next-generation of Big Dog (it has been dubbed LS3, for “legged squad support system’’) and Petman, an Army project scheduled for completion next year. Petman is a two-legged, human-like robot that will be used for testing clothing and headgear intended to protect the wearer from exposure to chemical warfare agents. What better way to test a suit’s effectiveness than by putting it on a robot that can walk, crawl, and even sweat, and seeing what happens when it gets sprayed with noxious chemicals? The Petman prototype standing on a large treadmill in the Boston Dynamics lab can walk, but it doesn’t yet have a head or arms that swing.

Big Dog is the rare robot that has also become a YouTube star: A three-minute clip of the robot walking up a hill, and slipping on ice before regaining its footing, has been seen almost 10 million times, making it one of the site’s most popular science and technology videos. “When I was an academic, we counted publications,’’ Raibert said. “Now, we count YouTube views.’’

Next up for Big Dog’s developers are a new body and leg design that will enable the robot to get up when it falls and a hybrid engine that will enable operation in a quiet, battery-powered mode.

At times, Raibert says, the company has grown too reliant on Darpa funding, which can ebb and flow depending on the agency’s current personnel and their priorities. “There was a time when Darpa was way too significant to our revenues, and we worked to diversify,’’ he says. In addition to robot development, Boston Dynamics also sells a $9,000 software package called DI-Guy, used to insert realistic human characters into computer simulations.

On the robotics side, though, Boston Dynamics has primarily built bots in limited runs (there are 18 Little Dogs in circulation, which is a large quantity for the company). That avoidance of mass production - and the subsequent parts, maintenance, and support issues - has freed it up to do “cool stuff,’’ in Raibert’s words, building sophisticated bots that are unlike anything seen before.

But Darpa’s Mandelbaum says the next-generation Big Dog (the LS3), once it has been put through its paces, will eventually be handed over to the Marines or the Army or both. They will refine it, do more testing, and make decisions about who to buy it from - perhaps Boston Dynamics, perhaps another military contractor that licenses the design from Boston Dynamics.

“I can foresee a time when any squad would buy a couple LS3s just like they’d buy a couple Jeeps,’’ Mandelbaum says. That could make it the first Boston Dynamics bot to be manufactured at scale: litter upon litter of robotic dogs, whelped in Waltham.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.