Army Terminators Walk Like Men

David Hambling, Wired’s Danger Room: Round four of mankind’s epic battle against the walking, talking, killer machines starts tonight with the opening of Terminator Salvation. But humanoid robots aren’t confined to the movies. Turns out the U.S. military is backing research into robots that act like people, as well.

Today, the American armed forces’ main ground robots, the Foster-Miller Talon and iRobot’s Packbot, look like boxes with caterpillar tracks. It’s a nice, stable design. And it works well — which is why the military has sent thousands of ’em over to Afghanistan and Iraq.

But these robots don’t easily fit into a world that we humans have constructed for creatures that operate like us. Door handles only work if you have something like a hand — and it has to be at the right height, too. Wheels and tracks get stuck on obstacles that legs just jump over. So it makes sense, sometimes, to shape a machine like a man.

One of the American military’s leading humanoid robots is Petman. Its job will be to testing chemical protection clothing for the U.S. Army. Petman is being built by Boston Dynamics, famous for its alarmingly lifelike BigDog robotic pack mule. Unlike earlier suit-testing robots, which needed external support, Petman will stand — and walk — on his own two feet.

“Petman will balance itself and move freely; walking, crawling and doing a variety of suit-stressing calisthenics during exposure to chemical warfare agents,” the company promises. “Petman will also simulate human physiology within the protective suit by controlling temperature, humidity and sweating when necessary, all to provide realistic test conditions. ”