Atlas, the robot that attempted a variety of things, including parkour and dance

When Boston Dynamics introduced the Atlas back in 2013, it immediately grabbed attention. For the last 11 years, tens of millions of people have seen videos of the humanoid robot capable of running, jumping, and dancing on YouTube. The robotics company owned by Hyundai now says goodbye to Atlas.

In the blooper reel/highlight video, Atlas demonstrates its amazing abilities by backflipping, running obstacle courses, and breaking into some dancing moves. Boston Dynamics has never been afraid to show off how its robots get bumped around occasionally. At about the eighteen-second mark, Atlas trips on a balance beam, falls, and grips its artificial groin in pain that is simulated. Atlas does a front flip, lands low, and hydraulic fluid bursts out of both kneecaps at the one-minute mark.

Atlas waves and bows as it comes to an end. Given that Atlas captivated the interest of millions of people during its existence, its retirement represents a significant milestone for Boston Dynamics.

Atlas and Spot

As explained here, initially, Atlas was intended to be a competition project for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The Petman project by Boston Dynamics, which was initially designed to evaluate the effectiveness of protective clothing in dangerous situations, served as the model for the robot. The entire body of the Petman hydraulic robot was equipped with sensors that allowed it to identify whether chemicals were seeping through the biohazard suits it was testing.

Boston Dynamics assisted in a robotics challenge that DARPA offered in 2013. In order to save its competitors from having to build robots from scratch, the company created many Atlas robots that it distributed to them. DARPA once asked Boston Dynamics to enhance the capabilities and design of Atlas, which the company accomplished in 2015.

Following the competition, Boston Dynamics evaluated and enhanced Atlas’s skills by having it appear in more online videos. The robot has developed over time to perform increasingly difficult parkour and gymnastics. Hyundai acquired Boston Dynamics in 2021, which has its own robotics division.

Boston Dynamics was also well-known for creating Spot, a robotic dog that could be walked remotely and herded sheep like a real dog. It eventually went on sale and is still available from Boston Dynamics. Spot assists Hyundai with safety operations at one of its South Korean plants and has danced with the boy band BTS.

In its final years, Atlas appeared to be ready for professional use. Videos of the robot assisting on simulated construction sites and carrying out routine factory tasks were available from the company. Two months ago, the factory work footage was made available.

Even though one Atlas is retiring, a replacement is on the way. Boston Dynamics revealed the announcement of its retirement along with the launch of a brand-new all-electric robot. The company stated that they are collaborating with Hyundai to create the new technology, and the name Atlas will remain unchanged. The new humanoid robot will have further improvements such as a wider range of motion, increased strength, and new gripper versions to enable it to lift a wider variety of objects.

The new Atlas

As reported here, the robot has changed to the point where it is hardly recognizable. The legs bowed, the top-heavy body, and the plated armor are gone. The sleek new mechanical skeleton has no visible cables anywhere on it. The company has chosen a nicer, gentler design than both the original Atlas and more modern robots like the Figure 01 and Tesla Optimus, fending off the reactionary cries of robopocalypse for decades.

The new robot’s design is more in line with that of Apollo from Apptronik and Digit from Agility. The robot with the traffic light head has a softer, more whimsical look. Boston Dynamics has chosen to keep the research name for a project to push toward commercialization and defy industry trends.

“We might revisit this when we really get ready to build and deliver in quantity,” Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter said. “But I think for now, maintaining the branding is worthwhile.”

“We’re going to be doing experiments with Hyundai on-site, beginning next year,” says Playter. “We already have equipment from Hyundai on-site. We’ve been working on this for a while. To make this successful, you have to have a lot more than just cool tech. You really have to understand that use case, you’ve got to have sufficient productivity to make investment in a robot worthwhile.”

The robot’s movements are what catch our attention the most in the 40-second “All New Atlas” teaser. They serve as a reminder that creating a humanoid robot does not require making it as human as possible, but with capabilities beyond our own.

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

It is essential to significantly reduce the robot’s turn radius when operating in restricted places. Recall that these devices are intended to be brownfield solutions, meaning they can be integrated into current settings and workflows. Enhanced mobility may ultimately make the difference between being able to operate in a given environment and needing to redesign the layout.

The hands aren’t entirely new; they were seen on the hydraulic model before. They also represent the company’s choice to not fully follow human design as a guiding principle, though. Here, the distinction is as simple as choosing to use three end effectors rather than four.

“There’s so much complexity in a hand,” says Playter. “When you’re banging up against the world with actuators, you have to be prepared for reliability and robustness. So, we designed these with fewer than five fingers to try to control their complexity. We’re continuing to explore generations of those. We want compliant grasping, adapting to a variety of shapes with rich sensing on board, so you understand when you’re in contact.”

On the inside, the head might be the most controversial element of the design. The large, circular display features parts that resemble makeup mirrors.

“It was one of the design elements we fretted over quite a bit,” says Playter. “Everybody else had a sort of humanoid shape. I wanted it to be different. We want it to be friendly and open… Of course, there are sensors buried in there, but also the shape is really intended to indicate some friendliness. That will be important for interacting with these things in the future.”

Robotics firms may already be discussing “general-purpose humanoids,” but their systems are scaling one task at a time. For most, that means moving payloads from point A to B.

“Humanoids need to be able to support a huge generality of tasks. You’ve got two hands. You want to be able to pick up complex, heavy geometric shapes that a simple box picker could not pick up, and you’ve got to do hundreds of thousands of those. I think the single-task robot is a thing of the past.”

“Our long history in dynamic mobility means we’re strong and we know how to accommodate a heavy payload and still maintain tremendous mobility,” he says. “I think that’s going to be a differentiator for us—being able to pick up heavy, complex, massive things. That strut in the video probably weighs 25 pounds… We’ll launch a video later as part of this whole effort showing a little bit more of the manipulation tasks with real-world objects we’ve been doing with Atlas. I’m confident we know how to do that part, and I haven’t seen others doing that yet.”

As Boston Dynamics says goodbye to its pioneering Atlas robot, the unveiling of the new advanced, all-electric Atlas successor points toward an exciting future of humanoid robotics. The sleek new design and enhanced capabilities like increased strength, dexterity, and mobility have immense potential applications across industries like manufacturing, construction, and logistics.

However, the development of humanoid robots is not without its challenges and concerns. One major hurdle is the “uncanny valley,” the phenomenon where humanoid robots that closely resemble humans can cause feelings of unease or revulsion in observers. Boston Dynamics has tried to mitigate this by giving the new Atlas a friendly, cartoonish design rather than an ultra-realistic human appearance. However, crossing the uncanny valley remains an obstacle to consumer acceptance of humanoid robots.

Beyond aesthetics, their complexity and humanoid form factor require tremendous advances in AI, sensor technology, and hardware design to become truly viable general-purpose machines. There are also ethical considerations around the societal impacts of humanoid robots increasingly working alongside humans. Safety, abuse prevention, and maintaining human workforce relevance are issues that must be carefully navigated.

Nonetheless, Boston Dynamics’ new Atlas represents a major step forward, showcasing incredible engineering prowess that continues pushing the boundaries of what humanoids can do. As they collaborate with Hyundai, the world will watch to see the innovative real-world applications this advanced system enables while overcoming the uncanny valley and other obstacles to humanoid robot adoption.