The New Atlas

Boston Dynamics recently released its next generation Atlas robot. One of the key takeaways is to show that ‘Atlas can keep a humanoid form without limiting “how a bipedal robot can move”’. To that end, the new Atlas has swivel joints that significantly increase the range of motion beyond what a human can normally do. Thus, making Atlas “uniquely capable of tackling dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks.”

The original Atlas HD (Hydraulic/electric) robot was released on July 11, 2013 and touted as a disaster-response robot. At 6’2” and 330-lb, this was a burly package, that turned out to be too bulky and less maneuverable than needed for the job. But it was a very useful platform for testing humanoid dynamics of motion.

Boston Dynamics eventually realized that the future for Atlas was a leaner, more compact robot built more to a human scale and with a high degree of maneuverability to operate in widely varying environments. To achieve this objective, in 2016 Atlas’ frame was shrunk down to about five feet tall and its engineering team focused on body dynamics and balance. Soon, Atlas HD was learning back flips and how to run a parkour course. All the while the Atlas engineers were learning and collecting data about performance. This eventually led to the retirement of the Atlas HD and the simultaneous introduction of the new, improved, highly flexible Atlas.

Here’s a quick timeline of the Atlas HD evolution:
2016 – shrunk down the size to about 5’ tall and no longer required a tether for power
2017 – worked out the mechanics for back flips
2018 – became fully autonomous for outdoor environments
2021 – fully enabled to perform parkour-like gymnastic moves

Finally, in 2024, more than 10 years from the introduction of the original Atlas HD, Boston Dynamics just launched the new electric version of Atlas. Its battery powered, uses custom designed servo motors and has a much more humanoid form. The increased range of its joints allows it to solve motion problems in unique ways as seen by the unusual way it gets up off the floor as seen in this video:

An Electric New Era for Atlas | Boston Dynamics
It is also equipped with machine learning tools, artificial intelligence, and dynamic motion modelling (DMM) it is the DMM that allows the robot to move in an optimized motion profile whether it is a least energy path, a fastest point-to point move or some other type of move.

There is scant performance data that has been released on the new Atlas, except to compare its joint strength to that of an athlete and in some cases, more in line with the capability of an elite athlete. As described by the Boston Dynamics CEO, “Compared to the original Atlas HD, this new Atlas is stronger. We’ve designed an even newer set of really compact actuators into our electric Atlas, which pack the strength of essentially an elite human athlete into these tiny packages that make an electric humanoid feasible for us. So, this robot will be stronger at most of its joints than a person, and even an elite athlete, and will have a range of motion that exceeds anything a person can ever do. We’ve also compared the strength of our new electric Atlas to our hydraulic Atlas and the electric Atlas is stronger”

Lastly, it’s worth noting that rather than equip new Atlas with a “face” which could trigger an engineering path down the “uncanny valley” they chose a benign ring light which can presumably combine different patterns of light and sounds as cues for intended actions or movement. No details, yet, as to how that is to be used, although for some it has been compared to the Pixar desk lamp logo with its soft friendly glow. No doubt more information will leak out in the future. In the meantime, it looks like Boston Dynamics just took the lead in the humanoid, AI Robot space.

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