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The future is here with Atlas robot

Posted: 29 Feb 2016     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:robot  atlas  mems sensors  3-D printing 

Boston Dynamics has released a new demonstration video of its latest Agile Anthropomorphic Robot (Atlas). The video has garnered over 20 lakhs (two million) views in just a couple of days. Atlas is used by the U.S. Army, the Navy and the Marines and is given away by Defence Advance Research Project Agency (DARPA) to contestants too poor to build their own in its Grand Challenges.

One thing you may not know, is that Boston Dynamics was acquired by Google in 2013, hence they no longer pitch the press or even describe their newest innovations, but merely make YouTube videos about their results and refuse repeated requests for interviews.

What we do know is that the newest version of Atlas is a little less ominous at just five-foot-nine-inch tall and 81kg, hefty for that height. Atlas can now operate indoors or outdoors, as demonstrated in the video where it slips and slides, but does not fall, on snowy unlevel ground. As usual it carries its own battery, but powers its manipulators with hydraulic actuators, making it plenty strong. It also has a new trick—it can get up if it falls (or is knocked over on purpose by a mean human with a hockey stick in the video).

Micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) sensors in its body and legs send orientation information to its processor which keeps it balanced. And it uses a range-mapping infrared laser-powered Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) system to sense obstacles, keep an eye out for potholes and generally manage its navigation and manipulation abilities. According to IEEE Spectrum, 3D printing—an approach being used by other robot makers—was used to embed the hydraulic pathways and servo valves are inside the legs instead of adding them on with expensive components, thus lowering its cost (or increasing Google's margins—we could not find out which since the sales department is also not answering queries).

classic atlas

Figure 1: Boston Dynamics classic Atlas is a super-strong military-grade robot unlike the consumer trends towards co-robots that less intimidating and which can be safely cooperate and work alongside people without hurting them. (Source: Boston Dynamics)

Apparently, Google—and its new parent Alphabet—are allowing Boston Dynamics to further develop the dexterity, weight-to-strength ratio and cost-lowering strategies of 3-D printing on their own. As far as what Google has in mind for applications of Atlas and its other four-legged brethren, such asBigDogwhich refuses to be pushed over even by mean humans, remains to be seen since Google is mum.

atlas legs

Figure 2: Boston Dynamics classical leg (left) used external hydraulic hoses and servo-valves, that are build into the 3-D printed leg of the new Atlas (right) which lowers its cost—to Google—and makes it operate more reliably. (Source: Boston Dynamics)

One aspect that these robots may or may not be developing is co-robot capabilities—the ability to move and work around humans without hurting them. One scene in the current video shows Atlas following a human, apparently to carry is pack or some such. However, the human provoker in the video who pushes Altas over and taunts it by moving the box it is trying to pick up out of range, uses a hockey stick to keep his distance from the robot, appearing afraid to get too close.

- R. Colin Johnson
  EE Times/Advanced Technology Editor

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