When you think of canine-inspired robots, your brain probably conjures up images of Boston Dynamics’ celebrated dog robot, Spot. But Boston Dynamics isn’t the only company building four-legged robots. Swiss robotics company Anybotics has also created its own audacious, quadruped robot. The size of a large dog and weighing a little under 80 pounds, Anymal aims to be the gold standard in dog-bots. It’s capable of autonomously walking, running, and climbing, and can even get back on its feet if it falls over.
Although Spot will go on sale for the first time later this year, this gleaming robotic beast is already on the market in Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. It’s also being put through its paces in some of the world’s least hospitable terrains. One such location is a storm-swept, offshore power-distribution platform in the North Sea, where Anymal was installed late last year to carry out routine inspections of the facility.
“Right now, this is the kind of application that really makes sense for us,” Péter Fankhauser, Anybotics co-founder and chief business development officer, told Digital Trends. “These are jobs where you have a routine task, such as carrying out inspections on a big facility. If there’s a huge amount of infrastructure that needs to be inspected regularly for safety and efficiency, that’s something like a robot can really help with. Especially if it’s potentially hazardous, like mines or offshore oil and gas stations. In those scenarios, it makes sense to keep people out and deploy a robot instead — both from a security and a cost perspective.”
And Fankhauser and his co-founders know exactly which robot to deploy.
Ten years in the making
The Anymal project has come a long way since its co-founders first started working together for their robotics degree at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. In the beginning, the focus was on developing electrical actuation, which allowed the robot to sense the ground while walking. This is a key capability for robots to move over uneven terrain. It quickly moved beyond this point, however, as the prototypes were taught to climb, run, and jump, and the team expanded its skills into areas like autonomous mapping and navigation.
At the time, Boston Dynamics’ early stage concepts were driven with combustion engines and hydraulics, but had already showcased promising results for the versatility of legged robots. On the other side of the world, Fankhauser and his fellow students were coming to similar conclusions about the possibilities offered by dog robots.
“We often get asked why we use a robot with legs,” Fankhauser said. “People ask why we don’t use a drone or a wheeled or tracked robot. Drones, for example, let you quickly gather different perspectives or viewpoints of a scene. However, one of the big problems is their battery life. A drone flies, on average, for about 20 minutes. They are also often very limited in terms of their payload. You couldn’t safely have a drone flying autonomously through an industrial environment while carrying a bunch of sensors. Tracked vehicles, meanwhile, are great on flat surfaces. The problem is that that confines what you can do. Yes, there are versions that can climb stairs, but they tend to be quite big and heavy. That restricts the ability to go into narrow environments. With legs, we think we can solve a lot of these problems.”
“A lot of the impressive walking robot demos you see are remote control. Our robots are built to be autonomous.”
After graduating, the team behind Anymal were convinced they had the germ of a seriously interesting idea. Both the size and cost of autonomous robot components were coming down, largely thanks to innovations in both the smartphone and self-driving car fields. Suddenly components such as mobile cameras and laser sensors were accessible in a way they hadn’t been just a few years earlier.
The team observed a bigger shift taking place as well. For much of the history of robotics, robots had been confined to certain indoor locations, such as robot arms used on the assembly line in car manufacturing. Many of these robots worked exceptionally well, partly because their creators were able to control every part of the “world” that they perceived. That no longer had to be the case, however.
“It made sense to us that the next logical step was to take robots out in the field, to environments that weren’t built with robots in mind,” Fankhauser continued. “That could be urban environments, industrial environments, or natural environments. There are plenty of environments where robots are urgently needed to carry out various applications, but aren’t currently being used. What we’re doing is to build robots that can go anywhere.”
Exploring the world at large
This is the world that Anymal — which has expanded beyond its original team to employ more than 30 people — now operates in. Without the luxury of being able to go a quarter century as an R&D outfit, like the aforementioned Boston Dynamics, Anymal has been built with industrial applications in mind from the start.
“We’ve worked with a lot of industries across the globe and that has taught us a lot of lessons,” Fankhauser said.
These lessons have all contributed to the design of the current-gen Anymal: A lean, mean, autonomous sensing machine that can operate in the dark, in wet conditions due to its waterproofing, harsh conditions thanks to its rugged design, and can move autonomously with the aid of smart sensors. “A lot of the impressive walking robot demos you see are remote control. Our robots are built to be autonomous,” he continued. Anymal can carry a payload weighing up to 10 kilos and operate continuously for three hours, before autonomously returning to a docking bay to recharge.
In addition to its routine inspection work in the North Sea, Anymal’s creators have worked with a number of different industries to see where it fits the best. These scenarios have included mining, sewage systems, construction sites, agriculture, forestry, and more. In short, if there’s a setting where you need to regularly inspect for status, track progress, and report on potential problems — without humans having to do it — Anymal may be your best bet. There’s even the possibility of Anybotics getting in on the delivery robot game, much like Starship Technologies.
One area you don’t need to worry about it being used? The military. “We receive requests, but we have deliberately decided to keep out of any military applications,” Fankhauser said.
So stop worrying about a real-life version of the robotic dog depicted in what be Black Mirror‘s most terrifying episode, Metalhead. Well, at least when it comes to this company!
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