Boston Dynamics announces new electric Atlas

Atlas, the humanoid robot and parkour legend, goes electric as Boston Dynamics retires its hydraulic predecessor in a move to commercialize the technology.

The robot is dead, long live the robot! A day after posting a tear-jerking farewell to the old Atlas, Boston Dynamics unveiled its next iteration: a fully electric humanoid robot ready for commercial use.

While the hydraulic Atlas was purely a research platform, its electric successor – also called Atlas – is designed for real-world applications, the company said.

“In the months and years ahead, we’re excited to show what the world’s most dynamic humanoid robot can really do – in the lab, in the factory, and in our lives,” Boston Dynamics said in a blog post.

Boston Dynamics said it was ready to tackle “the next commercial frontier” and built the new platform on “decades of visionary robotics innovation and years of practical experience.”

It said the new development was backed by Hyundai, a South Korean automaker that acquired Boston Dynamics in 2020.

“This journey will start with Hyundai – in addition to investing in us, the Hyundai team is building the next generation of automotive manufacturing capabilities, and it will serve as a perfect testing ground for new Atlas applications,” Boston Dynamics said.

The company’s other famed machine, the robot-dog Spot, is already a common sight in some of Hyundai’s factories. Hundreds of other companies are using Spot, which was deployed over 1,500 times since it was made commercially available, according to Boston Dynamics.

The company’s other invention, a robotic arm called Stretch, has also been used commercially.

All new Atlas

Boston Dynamics has offered a sneak peek into the capabilities of the new Atlas in a video posted online. It shows the robot laying on the ground as if deactivated, just to rise on its feet, Exorcist-style, leading to some mixed reactions from the commenters.

“Are they purposely designing pure terror?” one YouTuber pondered. Others, however, looked beyond the slightly creepy presentation. One user noted the robot was walking “a lot better than most humanoids I have seen,” and another said it had “amazing balance.”

The video then shows Atlas turning its head 180 degrees to face the viewer and walking towards the camera as its legs and torso align along the way. It then repeats the process and walks away in a step that appears a little clunky.

According to Boston Dynamics, this is just the first look of a real product, which will be improved further. “The electric version of Atlas will be stronger, with a broader range of motion than any of our previous generations,” it said.

These will include new gripper variations, making the robot more versatile and adaptable to different situations. The robots were also equipped with new AI and machine learning tools, including reinforcement learning and computer vision, Boston Dynamics said.

“We also recently launched our Orbit software, which provides a centralized platform to manage your entire robot fleet, site maps, and digital transformation data. Today, it’s available for Spot, but Stretch and Atlas will also be integrated into this enterprise solution,” it said.

Dancing robot gets real

A day before it unveiled its electric successor, Boston Dynamics announced it was retiring the hydraulic Atlas. The announcement came after years of research that saw Atlas progress from an awkward prototype first unveiled to the public in 2013 to a sophisticated mechanoid with near-human dexterity and speed.

“Now it’s time for our hydraulic Atlas robot to kick back and relax,” Boston Dynamics said on YouTube, where it posted a farewell video showcasing some of the robot’s highest – and its lowest – moments.

Boston Dynamics noted that “Atlas has sparked our imagination, inspired the next generations of roboticists, and leaped over technical barriers in the field.” The company did not explain its decision but hinted the journey may not be completely over for the robot.

“‘Till we meet again, Atlas,” it said at the end of the video compilation.

The retirement announcement came weeks after Boston Dynamics demonstrated the robot's functionalities and how they could be applied in industrial settings. The video clip shared on social media in February showed Atlas moving vertically placed objects from one box and putting them in a horizontal position in another while using a camera to calculate its next moves.

“Our humanoid robot gets ready for real work combining strength, perception, and mobility,” Boston Dynamics said at the time in what observers noted were “tasks that are actually useful” and “economically valuable.”

Over the years, Boston Dynamics has published a number of videos featuring different versions of Atlas jumping, dancing, and throwing objects while hopping on a scaffolding, which turned the robot into a viral success.

Originally developed with Pentagon funding to perform rescue functions in situations where humans cannot survive, Atlas may now stand at the forefront of the humanoid robot revolution that is expected to hit industrial manufacturing.

After acquiring Boston Dynamics, one of the world’s leading robotics companies, Hyundai seems well-positioned to benefit from a new era of automation. Others are moving in that direction as well.

Tesla, which is about to lay off 10% of its staff, is working on its own general-purpose robot called Optimus Gen2, while robotics startup Figure has partnered with BMW to deploy humanoid robots at the German automaker’s manufacturing facility in South Carolina.

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