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It can dance and it can do parkour – now, Atlas gets to work

Atlas, the humanoid robot, is “one step closer” to performing real-world manipulation tasks at human speed, developer Boston Dynamics said.

A Boston-based robotics company has released a video clip demonstrating “sick tricks and tricky grips” Atlas can now do, thanks to the ingenuity of its engineers.

The new routine sees eerily elegant Atlas assisting at a simulated jobs site, where it helps out a worker waiting at the top of a multi-story scaffold by fetching a bag of tools for him.

The video shows Atlas first taking a wooden plank, doing a 180-degree jump while holding it, and placing it to bridge the stairs and the scaffolding. It then struts to collect the tool bag.

Clutching the bag, Atlas climbs the stairs, passes the bridge, and jumps between different levels of the scaffolding before tossing it over to the worker above. It then pushes a large block of wood out of its way and finishes the task with a 540-degree backflip, earning itself a “showoff” title.

Atlas has previously demonstrated complex dancing and parkour routines, including hurdling, hopping, and flipping. The latest presentation is less flashy but is meant to showcase the robot’s functional side.

“We’re layering on new capabilities,” Ben Stephens, Atlas controls lead, said in a Boston Dynamics blog post.

He said that parkour and dancing were interesting examples of “pretty extreme locomotion,” but now researchers are trying to build on that and do “meaningful” manipulation.

“It’s important to us that the robot can perform these tasks with a certain amount of human speed. People are very good at these tasks, so that has required some pretty big upgrades to the control software,” Stephens noted.

While backflips look impressive, manipulation tasks such as those demonstrated in the video are deceptively simple and require “a more nuanced” understanding of the environment.

“Manipulation is a broad category, and we still have a lot of work to do,” Stephens said. “But this gives a sneak peek at where the field is going. This is the future of robotics.”

Atlas is an autonomous robot running on software that calculates its next moves based on camera data. It is a research platform and is not available commercially – unlike dog-like Spot and robotic arm Stretch, two other creations from Boston Dynamics.

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