Google-owned robot maker Boston Dynamics is typically secretive about the latest feats of its robotic flock. But for a moment this month, the curtain parted, revealing a slice of the action at the company.
Founder Marc Raibert joined an all-star panel of roboticists talking about two- and four-legged machines that walk and run and keep their balance at the Fab Lab Conference and Symposium held in Cambridge in early August.
Raibert showed a video of the company’s two-legged humanoid robot Atlas walking in the woods, noisily shuffling down what looks like a deserted hiking trail.
So far, we’ve only seen the company’s four-legged robots attempt such woodland forays. In YouTube videos posted by the company, we’ve watched the lithe and silent Spot tread lightly up and down a grassy ramp, seen BigDog splash through waves at the beach, and found that the LS3 can cheerfully romp through a few feet of snow.
Unlike its quadruped friends, the version of Atlas that walked through the woods is still tethered to a power source and therefore not completely independent, Raibert noted.
Still, having humanoids like Atlas walk through “wild” terrain brings them a step closer to making them useful to people.
Atlas wasn’t just taking a walk for the exercise — Raibert said that testing the robots “out in the world” is “a totally different challenge” to training them in the lab.
“Our focus is on balance and dynamics and working a little bit the way people and animals do where you move quickly in order to keep yourself stabilized if you’re disturbed,” he said.
A version of the Atlas robot got some extensive real-world training earlier this year as a contestant in the $2 million DARPA Robotics Challenge, in which researchers programmed the robots to tackle mock disaster scenarios.
DARPA-funded Boston Dynamics supplied robots to a half-dozen teams, which programmed their machines to perform tasks like drilling a hole through plywood and opening a door. A Florida team working on an Atlas robot took second place.
But, as IEEE Spectrum pointed out, every team struggled with a basic challenge: how to keep the keep the bots from keeling over mid-task. As Raibert’s presentation at Fab11 showed, that’s a problem Boston Dynamics has in its sights.
Other speakers at the event included Harvard swarm robotics expert Radhika Nagpal; MIT mechanical engineering professor Sangbae Kim, whose lab built the galloping “cheetah” quadruped; and Gil Pratt, a DARPA program manager who led the Robotics Challenge this year.