Thursday, February 9, 2023

Bipedal robot Atlas learns perception, object manipulation, sick flips

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We have spent years watching the evolution of Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot, its bipedal model that has gradually learned to walk, jump, parkour, and even dance. But now, the robotics company wants to give us a very brief and simple glimpse of what it might be like to have one of these humanoid-shaped robots in hazardous workplaces.

In a new video demonstration, the company has shown off its Atlas robot tossing planks and tool bags around in a fake construction site. Apparently, the worker needs his tools to continue his work on that elevated scaffold, so Atlas will come to the rescue. Atlas grasps, carries, and tosses the tool bag, climbs stairs, jumps between levels, and pushes a large wooden block out of its way before dismounting with an inverted 540-degree flip that project engineers have dubbed the “Sick Trick.”

According to Boston Dynamics, this demo is a part of its plans to reveal what Atlas can do and its designs. Previously Atlas danced in “Do You Love Me?” and did parkour, which may seem more impressive than picking up and delivering a bag of tools. But a robot performing manipulation tasks requires a more nuanced understanding of its environment.

For this new routine, the robot’s locomotion and sensing capabilities come up against the added challenges of not only detecting, gripping, and moving objects with different sizes, materials, and weights but also staying balanced while negotiating those objects through the world.

Ben Stephens, Atlas controls lead, says that roboticists are still a “long way off” from creating humanoid robots that can routinely tackle dirty and dangerous jobs in the real world. “Manipulation is a broad category, and we still have a lot of work to do,” he says. “But this gives a sneak peek at where the field is going. This is the future of robotics.”

It’s an interesting demo, even though Atlas’ acts are limited in the video. But again, it makes us think of a future in which robots like this one can assist humans in high-risk tasks, such as rescues, high-rise construction, or others. And of course, on weekends we would see them dancing in the discos.

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