Atlas; a Military Robot Designed To Save the Day

The latest discovery from the U.S. Defense Department’s research agency, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), is a humanoid robot called Atlas that looks as if it could’ve stepped straight off the set of the most modern Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster.

Atlas is invented to ultimately take on some of the most dangerous and high-stakes jobs conceivable, such as tending to a nuclear reactor through a meltdown, shutting off a deep-water oil spill, or accommodating to put out a raging wildfire. And if Atlas proves itself at such adventurer tasks, then one of its descendants might one day be obliged to do something just as important: help take care of the elderly and sick.

Atlas was revealed on Thursday at Boston Dynamics which is a company based in Waltham, Massachusetts, that has already generated an impressive vivarium of robotic beasts, some with funding from the Department of Defense, including a gecko-like, wall-climbing bot called RiSE, a decapitated robot pack mule named LS3, and a four-legged machine called Cheetah proficient of bouncing along at 29 miles per hour.

Like these other machines, Atlas has unimaginable capabilities for a legged . The six-foot-tall, 330-pound humanoid has 28 degrees of freedom permitted by sturdy hydraulically driven joints that allow it to not only bring heavy objects but adjust with exceptional speed to loss of balance. The robot’s head includes a laser-ranging device called a lidar that provides it with a comprehensive 3-D map of its surroundings. And it has two pairs of lightly different robotic hands. The robot currently requires a rope that feeds it cooling water and high-voltage power, but the goal was to generate an untethered version in 2014.

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At an event, Atlas performed robotic callisthenics designed to demonstrate its flexibility, somewhat noisily due to the shuddering movement of its pressure-driven muscles. Videos showed prototypes walking over rough ground and inching along narrow tracks in simulations.


Several Atlas robots and some of the other robots are linked in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a competition designed to drive the creation of a robot capable of being remotely operated in treacherous, complex emergencies. Teams from academia and industry are fighting in two groups: one involved in composing and building robots for such missions; another engaged in developing the control software for rescue robots. The seven teams battling in the latter track will each be loaned an Atlas by DARPA to achieve their code.

The teams registered in the challenge will spend a few months preparing their robots to compete in a gruelling physical contest planned to gauge their ability to perform tasks that would question many humans. At an event at the Homestead Miami Speedway, the humanoids tried to navigate a robot hindrance course involving such challenges as ascending into and driving a vehicle, clambering over rubble, and connecting and engaging a hose.

Although Atlas bears a more-than-passing similarity to an early Terminator prototype, DARPA requests that the robot is not designed for “adversarial” military assignments, and is intended only for humanitarian missions. The agency notes that the Fukushima nuclear accident inspired its Robotics Challenge in 2011 when human workers struggled to control an atomic plant severely damaged by an earthquake and tsunami. DARPA did send a handful of wheeled humanoids to the Fukushima plant, but these were unable to cope with barriers such as rubble on the ground or to accomplish the complex tasks needed.DARPA program manager Gill Pratt said, “We were tearing our hair out seeking to help, and the fact is there was very little we could do,”

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Long a staple of science fiction, humanoid robots have been kicking around robotics research labs for decades. But they have typically been too lazy, weak, or awkward to do much. Recent advancements in sensors and hardware have brought the possibility of a humanoid ready for real-world deployment closer.

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