Unitree A1 four-legged robot: China’s answer to Boston Dynamics
Many of you have certainly already seen the impressive – but sometimes frightening – videos of the American robotics manufacturer Boston Dynamics. Until now, the future of human robotics was attributed to this company, now the Chinese are following suit. And as is often the case when the Chinese catch up with a technology, many things are similar and the price is lower. The Unitree A1 walking robot is said to cost under 10,000 US dollars.
China’s answer to Boston Dynamics
The figurehead of Boston Dynamics goes by the name “Atlas”. He can walk upright (even stunts, backflips and parkours), catch, throw and much more. He is something like the prototype of the human robot that you learned to love and fear in movies like “I, Robot” or “Ex Machina”. The developers of Corridor are playing with these feelings, using them in their CGI made Video:
The Unitree A1, however, is not aimed at the upright running Atlas, but rather at the Boston Dynamics robot “Spot”, which also has four legs. Like the new A1, “Spot” is a kind of robot dog, but this is not communicated in the same way by Boston Dynamics, as Spot has a wide range of applications. At Unitree one speaks more clearly of a dog-like robot friend.
Boston Dynamics is primarily researching and shows the achievements in the videos. Unitree definitely wants to sell the robots. To give you an idea, here is a video of “Spot” before we go into more detail about the Unitree A1.
Capabilities of the Unitree A1
The Unitree A1 is supposed to master the following skills, which are very similar to those of the spot:
- jumping, turning, running
- up to 11.2 km/h speed (thus 7 km/h faster than spot)
- depending on how fast you jog, he can jog along
- Video recording and live transmission
- Follow people
- Recognize gestures
- Map production
- Can be loaded with up to 5 kg weight
In addition to a robust design and a powerful motor, the flexibility and mobility for such fast actions also comes from the sensor technology. These sensors are designed to support the user in weighing and selecting his movement decisions. Several camera eyes enable live image transmissions in HD (1080p) as well as the detection of obstacles and facilitate precise navigation for the robot. In addition, the A1 can follow people in a targeted manner, i.e. it can run behind or in front of them like dogs.
However, you probably can’t walk the 12 kg “robot dog” all too often a day: Depending on the circumstances and the use of the robot, the working time is 1-2.5 hours. How long you have to recharge the battery is not clear, but here you can assume a few hours. So the future visionary, who is brave enough to walk outside with a robot, would have to go for a walk with his four-legged friend after the walk towards the power socket. The Unitree A1 should also be able to recognize gestures of a human and react to them accordingly.
Mapping via SLAM and Lidar
As we recognize it from vacuum robots, Unitree A1 also implements a VSLAM algorithm (Visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) in combination with a lidar (for light detection and ranging). Thus, the A1 detects its environment not only by the camera eyes but also by a technology similar to the laser space measurement of household robots. It creates a live visual map (mapping) that can be called up in the app.
If all this isn’t enough for you, the A1 also has two HDMI, two Ethernet and four USB 3.0 inputs.
Assessment and outlook
Whether in agriculture, factory production or in the household: robots are already commonplace in many areas. Not necessarily yet in such a human or animal form as the models mentioned here, but movies like “I, Robot” are not as utopian (or dystopian, depending on your point of view) as you think.
The Unitree A1 first appeared at the CES 2020 in Las Vegas, where it was presented by the developers. It was only a matter of time before China would react to the American prototypes. The topic of robotics is too promising for China to be undercut by the USA. Although Unitree had already produced robots before the A1, they were not suitable for the mass market in terms of price and functionality. Of course you first have to wait and see how good the Unitree A1 really is and whether it could really replace a dog in the wild.
How do you see that? Could you imagine taking such a robot for a walk?