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Dante’s Peak (1997) : A nice robot locomotes into the wrong volcano

Robots: static walker ground robot

What it gets right about robotics: locomotion and reliability. Plus, that robotics requires a LOT of coffee.

Recommended watching: Grab some popcorn and the kids for family movie night! Mount Kilauea in Hawaii is erupting so it’s the perfect time to dust off Dante’s Peak, the under-rated disaster movie, and watch Spider Legs the robot walks away with the movie.

Dante’s Peak is a big budget disaster movie where Pierce Brosnan and his team of USGS scientists are in the Pacific Northwest. A Mount St. Helen’s lookalike volcano threatens the bucolic town where Linda Hamilton is the mayor and the owner of the local coffee shop. There’s not a lot of suspense because we know Pierce and Linda will become an item, none of her kids will die, and her grumpy ex-mother-in-law will get her comeuppance. The first half of the movie is setting up for the disaster and then there’s a whole lot of locomotion going on: The characters take cars, SUVs, helicopters, and boats to crash, swerve or sink as they flee the volcano.

But while the humans do a lot of driving, the cool form of locomotion is walking. That’s because the real star of the movie is the robot, Spider Legs, who walks its way down the volcano! The robot shows up six minutes into the movie to assure us that these are top, TOP, scientists so that when Pierce Brosnan goes all frowny face, and no one believes him that the volcano is going to blow we know in our hearts that Brosnan is right.

The robot aspect of the movie is realistic in four major ways:

Motivation to use a robot: It is reasonable for volcanologists to use ground robots to go into places that are too dangerous for them. More correctly, they probably would use robots if they could afford said robots. Mostly the volcanologists seem to be using robots that either NASA or a research university in Japan or the US has constructed - a friend with robot benefits? In real life, aerial and marine robots are used as well. (By the way, if you are wondering about NASA, NASA sees a volcano and says, “oh look, that’s just like a cliff on Mars!” So, there’s a two-for-one - NASA learns to make better planetary rovers and the volcanologists get data safely.)

Locomotion: Spider Legs looks and moves suspiciously like DANTE and DANTE II, the two robots built by Carnegie Mellon University for NASA. They rappelled into a volcano. On the other hand, Spider Legs seems disappointingly clunky compared to the Big Dog and Atlas legged robots by Boston Dynamics. This isn’t due to the age of the movie, it’s because Spider Legs uses a fundamentally different style of locomotion than Big Dog; it is a static walker, where at every moment in time, the robot is statically balanced. Only a very few animals use static walking, the lobster is one such animal as it needs to stay balanced to fight the sea currents. But that’s lobsters- most animals and people walk with dynamic balance; that is, for brief instant they are essentially falling. Dynamic balance is computationally intensive, hard to model, and requires significant sensor-motor coordination, so it has been a hard problem to solve. Plus, the consequences of an error in calculations generally leads to the robot falling and damaging itself and its surroundings, which encourages roboticists to play it safe with static walkers. See my review of Pacific Rim and Exoskeletons for more about legged locomotion.

Lack of reliability: For me, the most realistic part of the movie was that the robot broke. Robots do that. A lot. Just like when DANTE broke, CMU sent a roboticist down to fix the robot that was in the volcano because it was too dangerous to send a volcanologist. The roboticist clipped a rope to it so that a helicopter could lift DANTE out. The ring the rope was attached to broke and DANTE went splat. Eventually they got her out.

Coffee: Finally, it’s true... Roboticists love coffee. When the one of the USGS scientists goes all bouncy with excitement over the good coffee from Linda Hamilton’s quaint espresso shop, I thought he was one of my very own grad students.

Is Dante’s Peak a great milestone in cinema? No. It is simply the standard disaster movie with the all special effects, intense music, stilted dialog, and predictable twists that continually place the characters in unrealistic danger that we’ve seen a thousand times before. But it is fun, and it does have a realistic robot, so watch it with the family and, to paraphrase Buzz Lightyear, think about how walking is really falling with style!

- Robin

To Watch Dante's Peak, visit the below link to rent or buy on Amazon Prime TV:

For a video review of 'Dante's Peak', head over to the official RTSF YouTube channel or simply click below...

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