Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot grows hands and tries construction work

Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot grows hands and tries construction work
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Boston Dynamics’ Atlas – the world’s most advanced humanoid robot – is learning some new tricks. The company finally got Atlas in the right hands, and at Boston Dynamics latest youtube video, Atlas tries to actually work. It also released another Behind the scenes video shows some of the work that goes into Atlas. And when things don’t go right, we see some spectacular blows the robot takes in its efforts to advance humanoid robotics.

As a humanoid robot, Atlas focused primarily on locomotion, starting with walking in a lab, then walking on every imaginable type of unstable terrain, and then something sick parkour tricks. Locomotion is all about the legs, though, and the top half seemed like an afterthought for the most part, using the arms only to swing for balance. Atlas hadn’t even before Hands-Last time we saw it, there were only two incomplete looking ball grabs at the end of its arms.

This latest version of the robot has real grippers. They’re simple clamp hands with a wrist and a single movable finger, but that’s enough for picking things up. The goal of this video is moving “inertially relevant” objects – not just picking up lightboxes, but objects heavy enough to throw Atlas off balance. This includes things like a large board, a bag full of tools, and a barbell with two 10-pound weights. Atlas learns all about these “equal and opposite forces” in the world.

Like everything in robotics, picking up and carrying an object is more complicated than it seems. Atlas must figure out where he is in the world in relation to the object he’s picking up, develop a hands-gripping plan, and lift and manipulate the object while calculating how that extra bit of mass will affect his balance . As Boston Dynamics software engineer Robin Deits explains in the video, “When we’re trying to manipulate something like a board, all we have to do is make fairly educated guesses about where the board is, how fast it’s moving, and how we have to move the arms to make the board rotate 180 degrees very quickly and if we get these guesses wrong we end up doing stupid things and falling over.

However, Atlas doesn’t just clumsily pick up and carry things. It runs, jumps and spins while carrying heavy objects. At one point it jumps and throws the heavy toolbox to his construction partner without losing his balance. He does all of this on rickety scaffolding and improvised plank walkways, so the ground beneath Atlas’ feet is constantly shifting with every step. Picking things up is the start of teaching the robot to do the actual work, and it looks right at home on a rough job site. However, the basic claw grabs mean Atlas will crush anything he picks up, with objects like the plank showing visible damage where hands dug into it. Perhaps the next experiments will teach Atlas to be less like a hulking gorilla.

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