Boston Dynamics’ newest humanoid can stomp through snowdrifts

Google-owned Waltham-based robot maker Boston Dynamics pulled the covers off its newest robot Tuesday night to reveal a better balancing, more athletic model of its two-legged Atlas robot.

As is customary for Boston Dynamics, it posted a video on YouTube that demonstrated Atlas’s newest abilities, and suggested that warehouses could be the first place that the human-shaped robots could be put to work.

The most human-like of the company’s creations yet, the robot is a serious upgrade from previous klutzy models, one of which fell over and broke an arm, and relied on wires for commands and power.

But in the video, the “humanoid” ambled through the woods, tracked robot steps through snowy ground, stacked 10-pound cartons on shelves, and then showed itself out by pushing open a door and stepping into the daylight.

When an engineer gave it a rough push with a wooden pole, the robot fell over. But then it got right back up.

The Internet responded with a resounding gasp – 12 hours later, it was seen more than 2 million times. The reason everyone’s going bananas? No one’s yet seen a robot execute maneuver with such ease and nonchalance. It all looks stunningly … normal.

All the more so because Atlas is notoriously clumsy.

The limits of its humanoid locomotion were on painful public display last summer, when an earlier model of the Atlas robot competed in a contest hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – DARPA.

Teams of some of the world’s best robotics engineers directed various models of humanoids to perform tasks akin to emergency response in dangerous or unstable environments. A handful of teams chose Atlas as their model.

For two days the robots, including Atlas, stalled and stumbled their way through obstacle courses, sometimes dropping tools, sometimes keeling over onto the floor.

By comparison, the new Atlas model’s abilities look almost Olympian.

“It’s definitely impressive,” said Taskin Padir, a Northeastern University engineering professor. “Boston Dynamics has been one of the leading companies on legged locomotion for many, many years. It’s what they do really well.” Padir said.

Before moving to Northeastern, Padir taught at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and led a team that competed at the DARPA trials, finishing seventh.

“The new Atlas incorporated all the improvements that we teams had in mind when we here working on the earlier version,” he said. Among them: a lighter, smaller build, better agility, and a well-developed sense of balance.

But Boston Dynamics would not comment on the Internet sensation it had unleashed.

Michael Gennert, professor and director of robotics engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said the new Atlas represents a big upgrade from the machine he used in the competition.

“We know how hard it is to stay upright while walking through the snow uphill,” Gennert said. “It’s quite a demonstration of this robot’s stability and balance.” He added that such a robot would be well suited to maneuvering through earthquake zones or burnt-out buildings. “This is exactly what you need to have your robot walk through that kind of unknown environment.”

Padir said that the warehouse scenario suggested in the Boston Dynamics video – or a similar controlled environment — could be among the earliest situations in which such a robot could be used commercially.

Getting off on the right, ahem, foot with a hit “killer” application would go a long way toward establishing the robot’s commercial potential, according to Helen Greiner, who founded Bedford robot maker iRobot and led that company before founding CyPhy Works, which builds drones. But, “I’d be a little concerned about the price-point right now, how much it would cost,” she said.

Greiner said that a warehouse-type application in a predictable environment may be around the corner. “If it’s going to the store for you — that may be a while.”

One big hurdle to letting robots loose among people is that they are not yet programmed to safely interact with them.

Gennert said that when he and his colleagues push their Atlas around, it’s always with sticks and never with their bare hands. In the video, Boston Dynamics engineers do the same. “I would say it’s still not ready to interact with people very closely,” said Gennert. “I think you could still get hurt by the Atlas robot, even though it’s smaller and lighter.”

Semi-humanoid robots already have a foot in the real world. Well, not a foot exactly. Pepper, a robot that moves around on wheels rather than legs, greets visitors to retail stores in Japan with high-fives and hugs. Japan telecom SoftBank Group invested in French company Aldebaran Robotics and commissioned it to build a social robot with a playful personality that could provide information and advice to shoppers. The result was Pepper, and according to the company, SoftBank now uses about 2,000 of those robots in stores.

Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 by engineer Marc Raibert, who was a professor at MIT and Carnegie Mellon University before starting the company. The company relied on contracts from DARPA and the military for several years and broke ground on technologies for two- and four-legged walking robots that noisily clambered over rough turf-like hills and sand. Too noisily, it turned out. A report in December had members of the US Marine Corps saying such a machine would blow their cover.

Google, which is now a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., bought Boston Dynamics in 2013, alongside a handful of other robotics acquisitions, among them a Korean robotics maker called Schaft that also made some sturdy machines.

Globe reporter Hiawatha Bray contributed to this report.

This report was updated Feb. 25 at 11:30 a.m. to include additional details about Boston Dynamics and comments from Michael Gennert. 

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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