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A Robotic Walk in the Woods

A humanoid machine stumbling around the forest does not foreshadow a robot uprising.
August 19, 2015

The video below shows (among other things) a humanoid robot called Atlas stumbling its way through a patch of forest. It’s caused quite a stir online, but there’s no need to panic.

Truth be told, the clip is a bit eerie. But it’s primarily a great example of the potential value of dynamic balance—that is, keeping oneself balanced through motion—for allowing legged robots to cover all sorts of terrain.

The company behind Atlas, Google-owned Boston Dynamics, makes several other machines capable of remarkable feats of legged locomotion thanks to dynamic balancing (see “The Robots Running this Way”).

The video was presented earlier this month by the company’s founder, Marc Raibert, at a conference called Fab 11, held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Boston. I spoke briefly to Raibert about the video, and he explained that it was actually shot over a year ago using a previous version of Atlas. The latest version carries a battery on its back, so it does not require a power cable.

Several Atlas robots also took part in a contest held in June by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where they had to navigate a complex obstacle course involving opening doors, operating power tools, and climbing over rubble (see “A Transformer Wins DARPA’s $2 Million Robotics Challenge”).

It’s also noticeable how different the motion of the Atlas is in the woodland clip to the ones involved in the DARPA challenge. That’s because those robots used much more conservative control software to avoid falling over and damaging themselves (see “Why Humans and Robots Struggled with DARPA’s Challenge”). As the clip of Atlas shows, when you throw caution to the wind, robots are already capable of joining us for a walk in the woods.

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