DARPA and Boston Dynamics, of BigDog, Petman, and Cheetah fame, have unveiled their most advanced humanoid robot yet: Atlas. At 6’2? (188cm) and 330lbs (150kg), Atlas is incredibly imposing; with 28 hydraulically actuated joints, LIDAR and stereo vision, a beefy on-board computer, and some of the most advanced robotic limbs ever conceived, Atlas is remarkably human-like in its behavior. While Atlas is initially conceived as a disaster response robot, such as cleaning up and looking for survivors after a Fukushima-like disaster, it’s easy to imagine Atlas being the basis of a robotic army, supported by BigDog mules.
As you can see in the photo above and the video below, Atlas is incredibly technologically advanced. With 28 hydraulic joints, Atlas can replicate almost every degree of human motion – or, in the case of the robot hands provided by iRobot and Sandia National Labs, surpass them. Vision is provided by a Carnegie Robotics LIDAR and stereo camera system;LIDAR, or light-based radar, is the same detection and ranging system used by autonomous vehicles, such as Google’s self-driving car. LIDAR is expensive, but incredibly accurate. The tech specs say that Atlas has its own on-board hydraulic pump, but you can see in the video that it’s still tethered to some kind of off-board power/hydraulic supply. Like BigDog, whichstarted off tethered, Atlas will eventually be self-powered and free to roam wherever it wishes.
Atlas has an on-board, real-time computer – but it hasn’t yet been loaded up with its software brain. As it stands, Atlas is a shell, and more than a dozen teams will now compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) to see who can create the best brain for Atlas. In December 2013, each team will load up an Atlas with its software and compete in a series of disaster response trials. The best teams will receive continued funding from DARPA, and will then compete in the DRC finals in December 2014. Whoever wins that will receive $2 million from DARPA, and presumably a big contract for the commercial production of Atlas robots.
The ostensible purpose of Atlas is disaster response. As you can see in the video, Atlas has no problem walking over rough terrain, and the robotic hands that it’s equipped with are some of most dexterous and flexible hands that money can buy. (Read more about the iRobot and Sandia robot hands.) Hopefully, Atlas will be able to wade into dangerous disaster zones and save human lives.
It is hard to ignore the fact that Atlas looks like a Terminator, though. Given that its canine predecessor, BigDog, will soon join the US Marines, it seems inevitable that Atlas will eventually find its way to the battlefield. When that happens, the US will be able to field robot soldiers that are stronger, more resilient, and probably more accurate with their weapons than their human counterparts. At first, as with today’s UAVs, Atlas soldiers will probably be operated by humans situated safely in a bunker back home – but as their software improves, autonomous robot soldiers are not out of the question.
And then, a few months or years or decades later, they’ll take over the world.