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Innovation

AT-AT Boy! GE's Walking Truck From The 1960s Mixed 'Star Wars' With Jules Verne

Tomas Kellner And Mike Keller
May 04, 2020

In the early 1960s, almost two decades before George Lucas’s AT-AT walkers debuted on the big screen in "Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back," GE engineers started working on their own version of a four-legged people transporter. The Pedipulator, a military “walking truck," took its first stroll in Massachusetts. (See video here from 1965.)

The truck was officially called the Cybernetic Anthropomorphous Machine (CAM). According to Chris Hunter, curator at the Schenectady Museum of Science, the Army wanted a vehicle that could navigate rough and steep terrain. It had to be able to carry up to a half ton in men and material while pushing through dense vegetation, stepping over fallen trees and walking around standing ones.

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GE engineers unveiled their version of a four-legged people transporter in 1962. GIF credit: Museum of Innovation and Science, Schenectady. Top image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science, Schenectady.

The Army awarded GE a contract to build the experimental vehicle. But the same sensitive, hand-and-foot-controlled hydraulics that enabled the CAM to casually push aside a jeep, or gently paw a light bulb without breaking it, also made it impractical for prolonged field use. The project was mothballed.

Eventually, the CAM’s sophisticated controls found underwater applications. GE used it to develop hydraulic arms for the world’s first aluminum submarine, the Aluminaut. Today, robotic arms on everything from hazmat vehicles to space shuttles owe some technical debt to it.

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Sensitive, hand-and-foot-controlled hydraulics enabled the CAM to casually push aside a jeep or gently paw a light bulb without breaking it. GIF credit: Museum of Innovation and Science, Schenectady.

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The vehicle had to be able to carry up to a half ton in men and material while pushing through dense vegetation, stepping over fallen trees and walking around standing ones. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science, Schenectady.

Another project dating back to that intrepid era was GE's Hardiman, a joint Army-Navy project to build a powered exoskeleton that could “amplify” human strength by a factor of 25 — so hefting the maximum load of 1,500 pounds would feel to the wearer like lifting 60 pounds.

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A prototype of GE's walking people mover. Museum of Innovation and Science, Schenectady.

The project sponsors wanted a machine that could move cargo or equipment. The exoskeleton, which itself weighted 1,500 pounds, was actually two suits — one internal “skeleton” attached to the operator and an external one that carried objects.

Like Pedipulator, Hardiman never made it out of the lab. But the thinking was right. Robotic movers and exoskeletons are becoming a growing industry.

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GE’s Hardiman could lift 1,500 pounds. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady.

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GE engineers Ralph Mosher and Art Bueche with Walking Truck and Hardiman models in 1966. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science, Schenectady.

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