Atlas is the latest in a line of advanced humanoid robots from Boston Dynamics. Atlas’ control system coordinates motions of the arms, torso and legs to achieve whole-body mobile manipulation, greatly expanding its reach and workspace. Atlas’ ability to balance while performing tasks allows it to work in a large volume while occupying only a small footprint.
The Atlas hardware takes advantage of 3D printing to save weight and space, resulting in a remarkable compact robot with high strength-to-weight ratio and a dramatically large workspace. Stereo vision, range sensing and other sensors give Atlas the ability to manipulate objects in its environment and to travel on rough terrain. Atlas keeps its balance when jostled or pushed and can get up if it tips over.
It’s extremely difficult to make a bipedal robot that can move effectively, much less kick off a tumbling routine. The beauty of four-legged robots is that they balance easily, both at rest and as they’re moving, but bipeds like Atlas have to balance a bulky upper body on just two legs. Accordingly, you could argue that roboticists can better spend their time on non-human forms that are easier to master.
But there’s a case to be made for Atlas and the other bipeds like Cassie (which walks more like a bird than a human). We live in a world built for humans, so there may be situations where you want to deploy a robot that works like a human. If you have to explore a contaminated nuclear facility, for instance, you’ll want something that can climb stairs and ladders, and turn valves. So a humanoid may be the way to go.
If anything gets there, it’ll be Atlas. Over the years, it’s grown not only more backflippy but lighter and more dextrous and less prone to fall on its face. Even if it does tumble, it can now get back up on its own. So it’s not hard to see a future when Atlas does indeed tread where fleshy humans dare not. Especially now that Boston Dynamics is part of the Japanese megacorporation SoftBank, which may have some cash to spend.
While Atlas doing backflips is full-tilt insane, humanoids still struggle. Manipulation, for one, poses a big obstacle, because good luck replicating the human hand. And battery life is a nightmare, what with all the balancing. But who knows, maybe one day humanoids will flip into our lives, or at the very least at the Olympics.