SLICE OF SCI-FI

A 13-foot-tall, Avatar-like manned robot took its first steps

The fighting machines from James Cameron’s Avatar are stepping out from the reel and into real life.

Soldiers in the 2009 science fiction movie engaged in combat while sitting inside gigantic military exoskeletons, which could weather harsh conditions and navigate tricky terrains. South Korean company Hankook Mirae Technology recently debuted a similarly-styled robot: the Method-2. Standing at a height of 13 feet and weighing one and a half tons, it’s the world’s first manned bipedal robot, according to its makers. A human sits in the torso and controls it.

The robotic exoskeleton moves by mimicking the limb movements of the pilot in the glass cockpit. In a test video, the massive structure shows impressive stability and dexterity.

Since 2014, company chairman Yang Jin-ho has invested ₩242 billion ($200 million) in the project. Currently, the robot can walk forward and backward on flat surfaces. For now, it’s tethered by a power cable, which limits the distance it can cover. “The robot is one year old so it is taking baby steps,” Yang told Australian newspaper The Age. “Just like humans, it will be able to move more freely in the next couple of years.”

One of the designers who contributed to the futuristic exterior is a sci-fi blockbuster veteran. Artist Vitaly Bulgarov has conceptualized machines like this one for movies including Transformers: Age of Extinction and the 2014 remake of RoboCop. Bulgarov started working with the South Korean creators in 2014 and within a year, they had a proof-of-concept prototype ready.

Despite the similarities to Avatar’s amplified military platform, Bulgarov insists that he started with a clean slate and did not ape those designs. “As we progressed, we met the challenges and the limitations of range of motion, and degrees of freedom for each joint. It became a lot more industrial looking,” Bulgarov told New Atlas in an interview. However, as they kept developing the design, it became more and more like the robot suit in Avatar. “That wasn’t intentional, I guess the praise goes back to James Cameron’s vision, his design team had a great understanding of functionality, so the we ended up with the same overall proportions,” he said. There’s been talk of the robot possibly being deployed along the North Korean border as a warning to Kim Jong-un’s regime.

The mechanical suit will reportedly assist in cleaning up and restoring Fukushima after the 2011 nuclear energy accident. To help out in the disaster area, it will need to undergo a few modifications. For instance, the upper body and arm of the robot could be mounted on a wheeled platform with its own built-in power source, and the cockpit would have to be absolutely airtight so as to not let in any radioactive waves.

The makers expect to have the manned robot ready for sale by the end of next year. But don’t get too excited: it comes with a ₩100 million won ($8.3 million) price tag.

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