Hulking Humanoid Robot Atlas Debuts At Robotics Challenge

[ Watch the Video: Meet Atlas! ]

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

On Monday, the seven engineering teams advancing in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Virtual Robotics Challenge got to meet their prize ‘fighter,’ a 6-foot-2-inch robot named ATLAS.

The hulking ATLAS has a humanoid form and online videos showcase the robot’s uncanny sense of balance and locomotion skills.

The teams will have until December to program ATLAS for a series of tasks that might be expected from a first-responder during an emergency situation. The engineers will base their ATLAS programming on algorithms developed for the previous stage of the competition, when they had to create a functioning virtual robot that could operate in a computer-generated environment.

“The Virtual Robotics Challenge was a proving ground for teams’ ability to create software to control a robot in a hypothetical scenario,” said Gill Pratt, program manager for the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). “The DRC Simulator tasks were fairly accurate representations of real world causes and effects, but the experience wasn’t quite the same as handling an actual, physical robot.

“Now these seven teams will see if their simulation-honed algorithms can run a real machine in real environments,” Pratt said. “And we expect all teams will be further refining their algorithms, using both simulation and experimentation.”

While “ATLAS is one of the most advanced humanoid robots ever built,” according to DARPA, the robot’s brains will need to be filled with programs that operate its sensors, actuators, joints and limbs. The seven advancing teams will receive funding from DARPA and tech support from ATLAS developer Boston Dynamics.

In June, DARPA officials met with the competition’s Track A teams, which were funded to create both the software and the hardware for the DRC. During the meetings, Track A teams showed off their designs, hardware components and, in some cases, completed robots. The Track A designs included everything from NASA’s chimp-like RoboSimian to Drexel University’s Hubo, which resembled an astronaut’s suit.

“We have dramatically raised the expectations for robotic capabilities with this Challenge, and brought together a diverse group of teams to compete,” said Pratt. “The progress the Track A teams have made so far is incredible given the short timeline DARPA put in place.

“From here out, it’s going to be a race to the DRC Trials in December, and success there just means the qualifying teams will have to keep on sprinting to the finish at the DRC Finals in 2014,” Pratt added.

The prize for winning the competition is $2 million, but Pratt told the New York Times the real winners will be those who can be helped in the future by robotic first-responders.

“Two weeks ago, 19 brave firefighters lost their lives,” he said. “A number of us who are in the robotics field see these events in the news, and the thing that touches us very deeply is a single kind of feeling which is, can’t we do better? All of this technology that we work on, can’t we apply that technology to do much better? I think the answer is yes.”