Firefighting Technology: Robot Tests Chemical Protective Clothing

Coming Soon: Atlas High-Mobility Robot for Rough Terrain

By Mary Jane Dittmar

Petman, an anthropomorphic robot, was designed for testing chemical protection clothing for the military. Its natural agile movement simulates how a soldier stresses protective clothing under realistic conditions.

The robot needs no mechanical support, balances itself, and moves freely. It walks, bends, and does a variety of suit-stressing calisthenics while being exposed to chemical warfare agents. Petman also simulates human physiology within the protective suit by controlling temperature, humidity, and sweating–all to provide realistic test conditions.

Petman was built as part of the Individual Protective Ensemble Test Mannequin program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense Chemical and Biological Defense Program and was installed at the user’s facility earlier this year. Boston Dynamics partnered with MRIGlobal, Measurement Technologies Northwest, Smith Carter CUH2A (SCC), SRD, and HHI Corporation for the project.

According to an article by the developers at boston Dynamics published in the Journal of the Robotics Society of Japan, the mission of the Petman robot is for it to be a human surrogate during tests of protective clothing. Petman is the size of an average male soldier and can perform a range of natural movements. It can walk dynamically at speeds up to three miles per hours, and its articulated arms and back can perform a range of basic calisthenics. The robot, combined with various support systems that comprise the Individual Protective Ensemble Mannequin System, provides a first of its kind capability for testing individual protective equipment.

Firefighting Technology: Robots and the Fire Service

(1) Petman is an anthropomorphic robot designed to test chemical protective clothing. (Photo courtesy of Boston Dynamics.)

Petman will test individual protective equipment in an environmentally controlled test chamber, where it will be exposed to chemical agents as it walks and does basic calisthenics. Chemical sensors embedded in the skin will measure if, when and where chemical agents are detected within the suit. A treadmill and turntable integrated into the wind tunnel chamber provides for sustained walking experiments that can be oriented relative to the wind.

The skin is temperature controlled and even sweats to simulate physiologic conditions within the suit. When performing tests in the chemical environment, a loose-fitting Intelligent Safety Harness (ISH) catches and restarts the robot should it lose balance or suffer a mechanical failure. The ISH is a three-cable force-controlled harness system, which in conjunction with an overhead electric power hoist, ensures safe, automated handling of the robotic mannequin system without requiring personnel to enter the chamber.

The robot has demonstrated two-hour endurance tests through motion-scripting software the developers created. In the tests, the robot performs programmed sequences of motions including standing, squatting, squatting while turning, side-stepping with arms raised overhead, and walking.

Onboard systems include actuation, sensing, computation, and controls. Twenty nine joints, with integrated sensors for measuring position and force, are actuated with low-friction hydraulic cylinders or compact hydraulic rotary actuators. The robot has the following actuated joints: ankle (2), knee (1), hip (3), back (3), shoulder (3), elbow (1), wrist (2), and neck (2).

The robot’s skin, comprised of hard shells, incorporates thermal regulation and perspiration. Shells are connected by flexible joint sleeves. The shells and sleeves create an airtight seal that nominally prevents chemicals from passing through the skin.

An onboard computer reads the sensors, controls Petman’s behavior and handles communications with a remote human operator. It also performs low- and high-level control functions. Petman has about 90 sensors. Inertial sensors measure the attitude and acceleration of the body; the joint sensors measure the actuators’ motion and force.

Petman also can squat from a stand; twist the pelvis, torso, and head to look behind itself while in a squatted position; do a slow speed jumping jack; and move from a stand to kneeling on one knee.

Boston Dynamics has begun developing a new humanoid robot, the Atlas robot. It will build on the software and mechanical advances of Petman to advance the state of the art in rough terrain mobility. The focus of the effort will be to create new software and hardware to enable Atlas to coordinate the use of its hands, feet, and torso to maneuver in tightly congested spaces an in difficult and steep terrain. Such a humanoid robot could potentially be used to respond to disasters such as the failed Fukushima nuclear reactor. The goal is to build a robot that can maneuver through rubbled terrain and then maneuver upright using its free hands to open doors, use tools, and operate equipment.

Atlas–The Agile Anthropomorphic Robot

Atlas is a high-mobility, humanoid robot designed to negotiate outdoor, rough terrain. It can walk bipedally, which leaves the upper limbs free to lift, carry, and manipulate the environment. In extremely challenging terrain, Atlas is strong and coordinated enough to climb using hands and feet to pick its way through congested spaces.

Atlas’ hands are designed so they can use tools designed for human use. It is powered from an off-board, electric power supply through a flexible tether. It includes 28 hydraulically actuated degrees of freedom, two hands, arms, legs, and feet and a torso. An articulated sensor head includes stereo cameras and a laser range finder.

Several copies of the Atlas robot are being provided as Government Furnished Equipment for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Robotics Challenge program. Delivery is scheduled for this summer.


1. “Petman: A Humanoid robot for Testing chemical Protective Clothing,” Journal of the Robotics Society of Japan , 2012; 30″4, 1-6.


Mary Jane DittmarMARY JANE DITTMAR is senior associate editor of Fire Engineering and conference manager of FDIC. Before joining the magazine in January 1991, she served as editor of a trade magazine in the health/nutrition market and held various positions in the educational and medical advertising fields. She has a bachelor’s degree in English/journalism and a master’s degree in communication arts.

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