An impressive behind-the-scenes look at Atlas’ programming
Boston Dynamics has released two new videos that showcase its bipedal Atlas robot. The first is a typical Boston Dynamics flash, with two Atlas units demonstrating an extremely impressive gymnastics routine. They flip, vault, and they almost fall over, but it’s still brilliant. The second video offers an unusually transparent assessment of Atlas’ capabilities, as the company’s engineers explain what goes into creating these routines.
Boston Dynamics previously stated that Atlas is essentially an R&D project. It’s a cutting-edge machine that helps engineers develop better control and perception systems. In the video, Benjamin Stephens, Atlas’ control lead, says that Atlas is a platform to conduct R&D. This research also includes routines in gymnastics and parkour, which the company delights (and sometimes unnerves!) the internet.
However, some roboticists have criticised Boston Dynamics for misleading people about its machines’ capabilities. Although the videos are impressive, they are also very well-structured demonstrations, which require a lot more tweaking and tweaking. Stephens explains that Atlas cannot be pointed at a course and will do its own thing. “It’s not a robot randomly deciding to do skateboarding or parkour. It’s a choreographed sequence, similar to a skateboard video or a parkour videos.”
It’s great to have that clarity, and in an accompanying blog post, the company’s engineers give some more detail about how the robot has changed over the years. In past demonstrations, it was blind and just produced moves that worked as long as the environment was constant. It now relies more on its perception to navigate, so it is less preprogrammed.
The blog post states that “In this iteration parkour, robot adapts behaviours to its repertoire based upon what it sees.” This means that engineers don’t have to program jumping movements for every platform and gap the robot may encounter.
Today’s video is quite impressive compared to previous gymnastic routines. The robot’s movements sometimes look a bit human compared with past ones. Just look at this moment around 37 seconds in when Atlas jumps onto a platform, wobbles for a second, and then regains its balance. This is the kind of dynamic response that cannot be preprogrammed. It’s all good.