Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot takes a hike in the woods

The Boston Dynamics- built Atlas robot operated by Team IHMC Robotics raises its arms in the air in jubilation after completing the DARPA Robotics Challenge in Pomona, California, in June this year.
The Boston Dynamics- built Atlas robot operated by Team IHMC Robotics raises its arms in the air in jubilation after completing the DARPA Robotics Challenge in Pomona, California, in June this year.

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.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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