Earlier this month, a company named Agility Robotics unveiled its first ever robot: a bipedal creation named Cassie that looks like a headless, wingless ostrich. Cassie has reverse knees, motor-powered ankles, and can walk over different sorts of terrain at a decent clip. It can even survive a kick to the abdomen (the fastest way to test a robot’s self-balancing capabilities, though not the kindest). But are bipedal robots like Cassie really the future? Why not use wheels, tracks, or just more legs? Why make life difficult?
Well, according to Agility Robotics CEO Damion Shelton, there are good reasons for using bipedal bots, but it’s taken a while for the technology to catch up. He says the biggest advantage is that legged bots operate seamlessly in locations made for people.
“If you consider humans from a design standpoint, what we were designed for is being extremely agile in an extremely cluttered environment,” Shelton tells The Verge. He says when it comes to “legacy buildings” — i.e., those with stair-only access, or difficult steps or ledges — legged bots are going to be much more capable than those with wheels. “Or, if you want to be at ground level for the task you’re doing — like package delivery or on-site inspection.”
Shelton offers the example of 3D-scanning a rail yard. You could map a yard with a drone, but it would have to hover around, navigating in and out of buildings, and might require supervision. A wheeled or tracked robot would also have problems climbing stairs or making its way over uneven terrain. But a robot with legs would be as mobile as a human. Other use cases in a similar vein include scouting for the military and disaster response scenarios, like exploring a failed nuclear reactor or the epicenter of an earthquake.