Boston Dynamics has been at the forefront of creepy robot videos for years. Just when we were getting used to the idea of a humanoid robot that can run and do backflips, the company has gone and given Atlas hands and taught it to throw things. It’s all on display in the company’s latest video, in which Atlas fetches a forgotten bag of tools.
In the video, a “worker” is standing atop a scaffold when he realizes he forgot his tools. Well, except for the hammer he’s using — look, it’s not the best setup, but we’re not here for the story. We’re here to see a robot navigating an obstacle course. And that’s what Atlas does. It grabs the requested bag and ascends the scaffolding, using a wooden plank as a bridge, heaves the bag up to the worker, and then does a flip to dismount.
Atlas couldn’t have done any of this without its shiny new grippers. The robot’s hands made a brief debut in last year’s Super Bowl during a Samuel Adams commercial, but now we can actually see them in action. The graspers have just two fingers, one stationary and the other movable. That gives Atlas enough manual dexterity to pick up and place its plank bridge and carry the bag of tools up to its human co-star.
In the past, Boston Dynamics would offer little in the way of information about how it was developing its increasingly creepy robots. Now, there’s a 9-minute video that explains everything that went into preparing Atlas for its most recent demo. It’s not as easy as just telling the robot to do something new because the team is always pushing the hardware to its limits. For example, the flip dismount is more complex than any of the maneuvers it performed in past parkour videos, and the addition of carrying a heavy object can throw off the robot’s balance.
Boston Dynamics uses a technique called model corrective control to make Atlas work in this situation. Essentially, this allows the robot to think about how its motion will affect what comes next. Programmer Robin Deits compares this to the way the human body works. When you stand up, Diets says, your heart has to pump more blood so you don’t pass out. This process begins before you stand up because your body knows what it needs to do next. Atlas works in a similar way.
Currently, Boston Dynamics does not sell a humanoid robot, with or without bag-heaving capabilities. Atlas is a research platform only. Its only commercial product is the four-legged Spot, which costs $74,500.