Science & Technology
An Athletic Humanoid Robot Named “Atlas”
By Carolina Grace Figueroa
Volume 2 Issue 2
November 19, 2021
Image provided by I will Always Write Back
Boston Dynamics, a robotics company in Massachusetts, developed a bipedal humanoid robot, meaning with two legs, named Atlas. Atlas is 5 feet tall, weighs 190 pounds, is very athletic, demonstrates human agility, and was unveiled to the public in July 2013. Since its reveal, Atlas has learned to run, walk, leap, jump over logs, and even haul 25 pounds. Atlas uses sensors to balance on one leg, can navigate rough and uneven terrain including grass and snow, can climb independently using its arms and legs, and can turn 180 degrees while jumping. In September 2019, Atlas demonstrated the ability to perform a fluid floor routine in gymnastics, including handstands, cartwheels, tumbles, and somersaults. In December 2020, Atlas exhibited agility and balance while performing a dance routine to the song “Do You Love Me” and showed it can even do “The Twist” dance move. And most recently, in August 2021, engineers have taught Atlas to do parkour, which is the art of moving from one place to another using obstacles. Atlas was taught to do many parkour tricks including backflips, jumps on slanted platforms, and routines on balance beams and vaults. You can catch sight of Atlas in action by watching videos of the robot’s routines on YouTube.
Atlas is a research platform for whole-body robotic mobility. Its advanced control system and state-of-the-art hardware make Atlas the world’s most dynamic humanoid athlete robot. Lead engineer at Boston Dynamic Scott Kuindersma and his engineering team taught Atlas how to pick itself up from a fall and how to dance to a pop song. However, Kuindersma believes that Atlas is still at a disadvantage compared to a human, claiming “if you or I were to vault over a barrier, we would take advantage of certain properties of our bodies that would not translate to the robot. For example, the robot has no spine or shoulder blades, so it doesn’t have the same range of motion that you or I do.” Amazingly, this team has created robots with human-like 3D printed body parts whose movements mimic humans with a high degree of accuracy, grace, and agility.
To teach Atlas its new tricks, a set of rules, called an algorithm, was created by the team for the robot’s onboard computers to follow. The algorithms reason through complex dynamic interactions involving the whole body and environment to plan movements. The team then watched how the robot performed and tweaked the algorithm as a result. There were many failed attempts before Atlas successfully completed the parkour course for the first time. According to Wikipedia, Atlas is “custom battery-powered and hydraulically activated with 20 degrees of freedom. It has RGB cameras and depth sensors [that] provide input to its control system. All the computation required for control perception and estimation [happens] in three onboard computers.” Atlas has an advanced control system that enables highly diverse and agile locomotion; however, the team has not yet found a suitable power source to fuel this robot.
In the future, robots like Atlas could one day be used for search-and-rescue missions in places where parkour moves are useful for navigating obstacles. These robots will be intended to aid emergency services in search-and-rescue operations, performing tasks such as opening doors, shutting off valves, and operating powered equipment where humans could not survive. Atlas robots are evolving every year. It is fascinating, yet frightening, to know that robots can now dance like humans, climb into and drive a utility vehicle, connect a hose to a pipe, open a door, and climb a ladder. Who knows what Atlas robots will be able to do in 2030, but I am excited to see!