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  1. Atlas robot standing tethered

    Agile Robots

    Computer scientists have created machines that have the balance and agility to walk and run across rough and uneven terrain, making them far more useful in navigating human environments.

  2. Agricultural Drones

    Relatively cheap drones with advanced sensors and imaging capabilities are giving farmers new ways to increase yields and reduce crop damage.

  3. Ultraprivate Smartphones

    New models built with security and privacy in mind reflect the Zeitgeist of the Snowden era.

  4. Brain Mapping

    A new map, a decade in the works, shows structures of the brain in far greater detail than ever before, providing neuroscientists with a guide to its immense complexity.

  5. Neuromorphic Chips

    Microprocessors configured more like brains than traditional chips could soon make computers far more astute about what’s going on around them.

  6. Genome Editing

    The ability to create primates with intentional mutations could provide powerful new ways to study complex and genetically baffling brain disorders.

  7. Microscale 3-D Printing

    Inks made from different types of materials, precisely applied, are greatly expanding the kinds of things that can be printed.

  8. illustration of cloud with multicolor pixelated raindrops

    Mobile Collaboration

    The smartphone era is finally getting the productivity software it needs.

  9. silhouette profile of man wearing an oculus rift headset

    Oculus Rift

    Thirty years after virtual-reality goggles and immersive virtual worlds made their debut, the technology finally seems poised for widespread use.

  10. Smart Wind and Solar Power

    Big data and artificial intelligence are producing ultra-accurate forecasts that will make it feasible to integrate much more renewable energy into the grid.

Montage of Atlas robot walking over cinder blocks while tethered
  • Researchers at MIT, led by Seth Teller and Russ Tedrake, replaced the dynamic balance software that comes with Atlas with their own version. This lets the robot walk relatively quickly over uneven and unfamiliar ground.
  • Agile Robots

    Computer scientists have created machines that have the balance and agility to walk and run across rough and uneven terrain, making them far more useful in navigating human environments.

  • by Will Knight
  • Walking is an extraordinary feat of biomechanical engineering. Every step requires balance and the ability to adapt to instability in a split second. It requires quickly adjusting where your foot will land and calculating how much force to apply to change direction suddenly. No wonder, then, that until now robots have not been very good at it.

    Agile Robots
    • Breakthrough Legged machines that stride over uneven or unsteady terrain.
    • Why It Matters Much of the world is inaccessible to wheeled machines but not legged ones.
    • Key Players Boston Dynamics

    Meet Atlas, a humanoid robot created by Boston Dynamics, a company that Google acquired in December 2013. It can walk across rough terrain and even run on flat ground. Although previous robots such as Honda’s ASIMO and Sony’s diminutive QRIO are able to walk, they cannot quickly adjust their balance; as a result, they are often awkward, and limited in practical value. Atlas, which has an exceptional sense of balance and can stabilize itself with ease, demonstrates the abilities that robots will need to move around human environments safely and easily.

    This story is part of our May/June 2014 Issue
    See the rest of the issue

    Robots that walk properly could eventually find far greater use in emergency rescue operations. They could also play a role in routine jobs such as helping elderly or physically disabled people with chores and daily tasks in the home.

    Marc Raibert, cofounder of Boston Dynamics, pioneered machines with “dynamic balance”—the use of continual motion to stay upright—in the early 1980s. As a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, he built a one-legged robot that leaped around his lab like a pogo stick possessed, calculating with each jump how to reposition its leg and its body, and how aggressively to push itself off the ground with its next bound. Atlas demonstrates dynamic balance as well, using high-powered hydraulics to move its body in a way that keeps it steady. The robot can walk across an unsteady pile of debris, walk briskly on a treadmill, and stay balanced on one leg when whacked with a 20-pound wrecking ball. Just as you instinctively catch yourself when pushed, shifting your weight and repositioning your legs to keep from falling over, Atlas can sense its own instability and respond quickly enough to right itself. The possibilities opened up by its humanlike mobility surely impressed Google. Though it’s not clear why the company is acquiring robotics businesses, it bought seven others last year, including ones specializing in vision and manipulation.

    Atlas isn’t ready to take on home or office chores: its powerful diesel engine is external and noisy, and its titanium limbs thrash around dangerously. But the robot could perform repair work in environments too dangerous for emergency workers to enter, such as the control room of a nuclear power plant on the brink of a meltdown. “If your goals are to make something that’s the equivalent of a person, we have a ways to go,” Raibert says. But as it gets up and running, Atlas won’t be a bad example to chase after.

    Will Knight

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