[video] Chinese military test a rifle firing robot dog

Unitree Robotics built an AI-enhanced machine using U.S. investments and is catching up with Boston Dynamics.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been experimenting with robots, automation – and now artificial intelligence – for decades but rarely showed what’s on the mind of its leadership. The Chinese military’s latest recruit is a robot dog developed by a startup with backing from significant venture capital firms, with some of the money coming from American investors.

The Chinese army exhibited a B1 robodog that fires an automatic rifle at the “Golden Dragon 2024” joint drills with Cambodia last May. The four-legged, AI-enhanced machine is based on a design from Unitree Robotics, officially named Hangzhou Yushu Technology, which has received investment from notable venture capitalists such as Neil Shen’s HongShan (formerly Sequoia Capital China), Matrix Partners China, and Shunwei Capital, established by Xiaomi founder Lei Jun.

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The Financial Times learned that in February, Unitree Robotics raised the equivalent of $140 million in a funding round, with food delivery app Meituan emerging as the largest external investor with an 8% stake. Before separating from Sequoia Capital last year amid growing U.S.-China tensions, HongShan raised nearly $9 billion, and half of this amount originated from U.S.

pension funds and endowments.

Corporate records reveal that the funding from HongShan and Matrix Partners China came from their renminbi-denominated funds, excluding U.S. investors, with each holding 7% and 6% stakes in Unitree, respectively, according to business data provider Tianyancha.

However, the credibility of those records has not been verified.

Unitree, which designs doglike and humanoid robots for civilian use, claims it never sold its products to the Chinese military and “had no clue” how the PLA had acquired the robodog. “The company does not have any contractual or business relationship with any military-related parties,” Unitree said.

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And yet in numerous videos (here and here) published on YouTube, Unitree’s name is clearly seen on the PLA’s remote-controlled robot dog, which performs tasks such as jumping, following commands, and leading an infantry team, while firing a rifle during an exercise.

During the same 15-day ground and sear maneuvers, the Chinese army demonstrated drones firing automatic rifles while flying.

The demonstration of the armed robot dog is likely to reinforce Washington’s resolve to prevent American money from supporting China's military technology development. Unitree's robots are strikingly similar to the products of Boston Dynamics, a leading American robotic technology company. 

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