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Boston Dynamics’ Atlas humanoid robot goes electric | TechCrunch

Boston Dynamics’ Atlas humanoid robot goes electric | TechCrunch

Atlas is motionless. In a precarious position on top of interlocking gym mats. The only soundtrack is the whirring of an electric motor. It's not exactly silent, but it's nothing compared to the hydraulic shock of its ancestors.

As the camera pans around the robot's back, its legs bend at the knees. It's a natural move, at first, before entering an extraordinary realm, like something out of a Sam Raimi film. The robot, which appeared to be lying on its back, has effectively changed positions with this clever bit of leg rotation.

As the Atlas stands completely still, it does so with the camera behind it. The head now rotates 180 degrees, before the torso follows suit. It stands still for a moment, giving the camera its first clear view of its head—a ring of light that circles the perfectly round screen. Again, the torso follows the 180 of the head, as the atlas moves away from the camera and out of frame.

A day later Retiring the hydraulic version As for its humanoid robot, Boston Dynamics has just announced that – like Bob Dylan before it – Atlas has just gone electric.

The pace is fast, the steps still a bit bumpy—though significantly more fluid than many of the newer commercial humanoids we've been introduced to over the past few years. If anything, the trick brings to mind the quick confidence of Spot, Atlas's cousin whose branch on the evolutionary tree was severed from the humanoid a few generations ago.

A brand new atlas

The new version of the robot is virtually unrecognizable. Gone is the heavy upper torso, bent legs and plated armor. There are no exposed cables anywhere on the new mechanical skeleton. The company, which has fended off reactionary complaints of the robopocalypse for decades, has opted for a kinder, gentler design than both the original Atlas and contemporary robots like the Figure 01 and Tesla Optimus.

The new robot's aesthetics more closely match Agility's Digit and Apptronik's Phoenix. There is a milder, more cartoonish design for the traffic light robot. According to the video it's “All New Atlas”. Boston Dynamics has reduced its trend by maintaining a research name for a product that will lead to commercialization. SpotMini became Spot. The handle became a stretch. For now, however, Atlas is still Atlas.

“We may revisit that when we're ready to actually build and deliver in volume,” Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Player told TechCrunch. “But I think for now, it's beneficial to keep the branding.”

The executive's statement betrays the project's still early stages. Boston Dynamics' current timeline has the electric Atlas beginning pilot testing at Hyundai facilities early next year, with full production a few years away.

“We're going to be experimenting with Hyundai onsite, starting next year,” says Playter. “We already have the Hyundai stuff. We've been working on it for a while. To make it successful, you have to have a lot more than cool tech. You really have to understand the use case. You have to understand, you have to have enough productivity to invest in robots.”

Doing a 180

Image credit: Boston Dynamics

The most surprising thing about the 40-second “All New Atlas” teaser is the robot's movements. They are a reminder that creating a humanoid robot does not require making the robot more human. As one investor pointed out to me years ago, billions of years of evolution have not turned us humans into perfect machines. If we're going to make machines in our pictures, why not make machines that can do things we can't?

“We built a set of custom, high-powered and very flexible actuators on most of the joints,” Playter says. “That's a huge range of motion. It really packs the power of an elite athlete into this small package, and we've used that package throughout the robot.”

One thing to keep in mind when watching the footage is that Boston Dynamics has made a name for itself in decades of viral videos. Recent additions to the canon are just as likely to show off the 'bot's dance moves as they are genuinely useful in an industrial environment. For this reason, it's difficult to separate what the company considers to be the actual functionality and what it pretends to be.

Starting in the prone position, for example, is an opportunity to show off that cool reverse crab leg trick — but it's also practical. As Boston Dynamics was more than happy to demonstrate in the Hydraulic Atlas farewell video, falling down is part of the job — and so, too, is getting up. The truth of the matter is that most of the current crop of industrial robots require human intervention when they fail. A robot that can easily wash itself and get back to work, on the other hand, is a big win for productivity.

The system's ability to turn on a dime also lends itself considerably to its productivity. It brings to mind Agility's Digit demo (the company's only demoing system of this scale), in which a robot walks toward a shelf, turns, walks toward a conveyor belt, turns, and so on. Walks back. Multiply that work by hundreds — or even thousands — per day, and you start to see the value of shaving off precious seconds.

Explains Playter, “It will be able to a set of movements that are not people.” “It would have very practical uses.”

It is also important to significantly reduce the turning radius of the robot in tight spaces. Remember, these machines are intended for brownfield solutions – that is, they are designed to be plugged into existing workflows in existing locations. Increased maneuverability can ultimately mean the difference between working in order and having to redo the order.

Head and hands

Image credit: Boston Dynamics

Hands aren't exactly new to video, having appeared on hydraulic models before. However, they also represent the company's decision not to fully color human design as a guiding force. Here, the difference is as simple as choosing three fingers instead of four on the end effectors.

“There's a lot of complexity in one hand,” Playter says. “When you're taking on the world with actuators, you have to be ready for reliability and robustness. So, we designed them with fewer than five fingers to try to control their complexity. We continue to explore generations of them. We want adaptive grip with rich sensing on board, so you can understand when you're in touch.

Internally, the most controversial aspect of the design may be the head. The large, round display has cosmetic mirror shades.

“That was one of the design elements we were a little concerned with,” Playter says. “Everybody else had some kind of human form. I wanted it to be different. We wanted it to be friendly and open. It provides a palette for the display. Of course, there are sensors buried there, but also form. It will be important to interact with these things in the future.

An Atlas for Christmas

Image credit: Boston Dynamics

The landscape has changed dramatically in the decade since the introduction of the hydraulic atlas. Electric Atlas is a fair bit of company, in humanoid robot form statistics, Uptronic, Tesla And 1XAmong others.

“For us, there's obviously been a huge influx of interest. I think the influx was driven by three events. Boston Dynamics was acquired (by Hyundai) for about a billion dollars. That kind of woke everyone up. Said like, 'Wow, there's a way out.' Tesla has expressed an interest in manufacturing such validated things for a long time. And then, the emergence of AI as a tool to help deal with the generalization is making it all possible We were patient in announcing, because we wanted to do enough research to understand that we could solve the manipulation problems and be confident in the new generation of the machine.

Despite Boston Dynamics' big start in humanoids, Playter says the company gets the first build of the new robot around Christmas 2023. Earlier, it was working through many complex problems in simulation.

This week, it seems, the company is finally ready to show off what the robot can do — or at least the early stages of what it's planning with the system.

General Intelligence

One thing you can say for sure about Elon Musk is that the man makes big promises. In Optimus's early public days, when the Tesla 'bot looked like little more than a spandex-clad human, the executive talked about a system that could do it all. Your Optimus can work at the factory all day, do his grocery shopping and then cook you dinner. This is the dream, isn't it?

The truth of the matter is that baby steps are built around. Robotics firms may already be discussing “general-purpose humanoids,” but their systems are expanding one task at a time. For most, this means moving payloads from point A to point B. To truly use the form factor, however, will require more general intelligence.

The App Store model seems to offer the clearest path out there. Developer access, however, has been a big part of expanding Spot's feature set. Platter, however, says Boston Dynamics won't be taking that approach with Atlas.

“We're definitely going to target an application ourselves and not build a platform,” he says. Our experience is that the way to go faster is to focus on an application and solve problems—and not assume that someone else is going to solve it for us. I think AI is an essential piece here. The generalization of tasks is being taken to support and will be strengthened with AI techniques.

Company Recently opened Access to Spot's reinforcement learning algorithm for developers. This work will be the foundation of Atlas' growing talent.

outside the box

Playter points out that humanoids have to go beyond boxes to be successful.

“I think you could do that with a lot of other robots,” he says. “Humanoids need to be able to support a great generality of tasks. You have two hands. You want to be able to pick up complex, heavy geometric shapes that a simple box picker can't pick up—and you have to.” I think single-task robots are a thing of the past. Stretching This is one of the last applications where you can have a robot just walk around in boxes and make it work.

If not the box, what will the new Atlas be tasked with on the Hyundai show floor? The answer can be found in a video posted by the company. Back in Februarywhich saw a hydraulic version of the robot interacting with the car's struts – Hyundai components that the player had previously hinted at.

“Our long history in dynamic mobility means we are robust and know how to accommodate heavy payloads and still maintain great mobility,” he says. “I think that's a differentiator for us, being able to take heavy, complex, massive things. That strut in the video probably weighs 25 pounds. Lifting the wheels — we're part of that whole effort. Will be launching a video later showing a bit more of the manipulation work we're doing with Atlas. I'm sure we know that part How to do it, and I haven't seen others do it yet.

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