• Screenshot from Boston Dynamics 2015 video introducing the four-legged robot Spot. (YouTube)Source: YouTube
Cutting-edge robotics involves giving robots a hard time - to prove they have what it takes to function in the real world.
Signe Dean

25 Feb 2016 - 4:17 PM  UPDATED 25 Feb 2016 - 4:19 PM

US-based engineering and robotics company Boston Dynamics has just released a video showcasing their latest feat, the newest generation of the humanoid over-achiever Atlas.

Designed as a bipedal rough-terrain-scaling and load-bearing machine, the latest iteration of Atlas is shown wandering around a snowy forest, stacking boxes and, naturally, being pushed around by a dude with a hockey stick.

Boston Dynamics, which was acquired by Google in 2013, has extensive experience in abusing robots. The company started out in 1992 as an off-shoot of an MIT artificial intelligence laboratory that focused on building robots with legs.

Learning from nature is a significant component of robot engineering - over millions of years evolution in collaboration with environment has shaped limbs and joints, superior tools for transporting ourselves and the items we carry.

While robots can certainly get around on wheels - or gyroscopes, like BB-8 from Star Wars - well-designed legs provide a distinct advantage when it comes to scaling anything other than a smooth surface.

This is why Boston Dynamics takes cues from nature, creating not just bipedal robots, but ones that can walk in a manner closely resembling animals. In 2005 they introduced Big Dog, a sort-of robotic mule developed in collaboration with NASA and Harvard University, and made possible with military funding.

The robot was designed to be a companion for soldiers, capable of taking on heavy loads, running and climbing across rough terrain, including mud and snow. To demonstrate Big Dog’s reflexes, they kicked the thing with full force on camera, and shared the results on YouTube.

Just last year they did the same to Spot, Big Dog’s smaller cousin whose gait resembles a cat or a fox. Because Spot is so pet-like, with an engine that doesn’t sound like a swarm of bees, it’s even harder to watch it being shoved around.

Back at MIT researchers are making strides in robotics, too. Last year their Biomimetic Robotics Lab unveiled Cheetah II, capable of autonomously running around and even jumping across obstacles. While there’s no incriminating footage of it being kicked, Cheetah has been running and jumping for hours and hours on treadmills - for testing purposes, naturally.

A lot of these projects have been funded by the US military research branch DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). As part of their goal to “make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security” DARPA has even hosted a robotics competition for developers to robots capable of assisting humans in rescue operations when disaster strikes.

In the 2015 finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, robots were tasked with driving a vehicle, getting out of it, opening a door, turning a valve, scaling a wall, dealing with a surprise, clambering over rubble and then tackling some stairs.

Even though this high-profile engineering competition made a significant contribution to the field of robotics, the participating robots failed a lot - and fell over a lot, too.

The robot that fetched the US$2 million grand prize in this competition was DRC-HUBO, a humanoid robot developed by a team from the Korean Institute for Science and Technology. The 5’3” tall aluminium machine could switch from a wheeled machine to a biped, making it more flexible and less prone to toppling over.

But did they hit it with heavy things while in testing phase? You bet.

However, engineers are not smacking around the results of their hard work just for fun. Robot abuse is an inherent part of preparing these incredibly complex and expensive devices for real-life challenges - although we may want to get rid of this footage once machines become sentient. Just in case.

SBS News
Meet the 'next generation' of Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot
Engineering and robotics company Boston Dynamics has released a new video showing off the latest version of Atlas, its bipedal humanoid machine.