Recently, scientists have created an agile, humanoid robot that is not only able to walk like humans, but respond to variable, unsteady and uneven terrain. This is a breakthrough because prior to this, robots were relatively unstable and unable to respond and adapt to different environments. Its sensate hands are also able to use tools that have been designed for human use, and its head includes stereo cameras and a laser range finder.
Atlas the humanoid robot was developed by the biomechanical engineering company Boston Dynamics, and it has an excellent sense of balance and adaptability. This is because it is able to move with ease across rough terrain and not look awkward while doing it. Just as a human is able to measure the balance and weight shifts required when walking, jumping or running, Atlas can quickly learn and respond to changes in its external environment. Its back also flexes and moves in response to the tasks it is completing. Atlas can also climb using its arms and legs, and is about 6 feet (1.8 metres) tall.
Its intended use is to aid emergency services such as search and rescue operations, and performing tasks or operating powered equipment where humans cannot survive, such as the event of a nuclear meltdown or oil spill. The New York Times has described the debut of Atlas as “a giant – though shaky – step toward the long-anticipated age of humanoid robots”.
However, Atlas is still very much in the development stage. Its walking capabilities are not fully developed and its powerful motor is too loud for domestic use. Its titanium limbs can also get dangerous as they thrash around at times when the robot tries to maintain its balance.
Boston Dynamics was acquired by Google in December 2013, the 8th robotics business it has bought in the last 2 years. Although it is unclear as to why Google is acquiring so many companies in the biomechanics and robotics sector, this is one invention that could herald great progress for the future.
In 2014, 6 different Atlas robots programmed by 6 different teams will compete in a challenge called the DARPA Robotics Challenge (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which will test the machine’s ability to perform a wide range of tasks, such as using power tools, climbing out of rubble, getting in and out of a vehicle and their proficiency in driving it. Although many other robots will compete, the prospects of Atlas are looking extremely good. The prize for this challenge is 2 million US dollars. DARPA has also stated that it does not intend to use the robot for defense purposes at any point in the future, and the long-term goal for it is to use it in home care and health care. However, there are still many obstacles to overcome before this can be possible, and developers foresee this happening in less than a decade.