On Boston Dynamics & Atlas

The line-up of just several of Boston Dynamic's robots. Image via Boston Dynamics' YouTube video.
The line-up of just several of Boston Dynamic’s robots. Image via Boston Dynamics’ YouTube video.

Yesterday, Boston Dynamics posted a video on YouTube of the latest iteration in their Atlas line of robots. Watching it, Atlas seems to have reached a whole new level of capability.

Boston Dynamics are a company at the very forefront of robotic engineering.  To date, they’ve showcased multiple cutting edge robot technologies — many of which have been competed well at the DARPA Robotics Challenge competition (DRC).
Atlas box stacking
Atlas ably lifting and placing boxes. Image: Boston Dynamics via YouTube.

What’s immediately striking about Boston Dynamics’ robots — indeed many robots competing in DRC — is the extent to which the robots take on a humanoid appearance: standing upright, bi-pedal, with two arm-like appendages, and something akin to a central torso.

At 1.75 m (5’9″) tall and weighing 82 kg (180 lbs), the new Atlas is considerably smaller and lighter than its forebears. Its predecessor — the DRC Atlas that featured in last year’s DARPA competition — was 1.9 m (6’2″) tall and weighed 156 kg (345 lbs). But it appears as though the robot’s undergone considerable system upgrades too, and appears to be impressively capable.

Atlas ably lifting and placing boxes.
Atlas under pressure. Image: Boston Dynamics via YouTube.

That notion that sequential iterations bear significant improvements — although exciting and remarkable — isn’t entirely surprising. The DRC Atlas was 75% new, in respect to its predecessor. Still, it’s a stark reminder of the pace of innovation in the field.

Despite changes, superficial and system-based, the new Atlas is designed to operate under much the same conditions as the DRC Atlas. It’s capable both outdoors and inside buildings, and specialised for mobile manipulation of objects. It’s battery powered and hydraulically actuated.

Atlas uses sensors in its body and legs to balance; while LIDAR and stereo sensors embedded it its ‘head’ enable it to detect and avoid obstacles. The same sensors assess the environment and terrain, and are used in navigation and interaction with objects.

What’s not clear from the video above is to what extent Atlas is operating autonomously in the various scenarios we see. Curious, but if more information appears, we’ll take a look.

Atlas recovery
Atlas recovers from a fall. Image: Boston Dynamics via YouTube

Uncertainties aside, the recovery of Atlas in the clip above is remarkable — especially since it demonstrates a (apparently) working solution to an all too common weakness of many bi-pedal robots: face-planting.

A common sight at the DARPA Robotics Challenge: an earlier version of Atlas falls.
A common sight at the DARPA Robotics Challenge: an earlier version of Atlas falls.

Boston Dynamics was bought by Google in 2013, and now exists within the somewhat secretive research outfit, X (previously Google[x]), which itself is a subsidiary of Alphabet — the conglomerate that owns Google.

Note: GIF rights belong to Andrew Liszewski, via Paleo Future