The best way to appreciate the latest video of Boston Dynamics’ “Atlas” robot is with Survivor’s 1982 hit “Eye of the Tiger” blasting at the same time. The short, 29-second clip of the former shows the freestanding bipedal robot jog, hop over a fallen log, and then perform a running jump onto a platform, then another, and then, with both feet, land on a third platform. For good measure, a full two-thirds of the clip are devoted to a slow-motion capture of that last series of jumps.
Atlas is here, and after a somewhat rocky start, the robot is as capable of parkour as a Sylvester Stallone circa the mid-1970s.
Bipedal robots are some of the trickiest machines to make. Before this jaunt, Atlas is perhaps most famous for the ease with which it can get knocked down, even if it gets back up again. Most of the other animal-inspired robots made by Boston Dynamics are four-legged, which allows for movement over rough terrain while more easily preserving balance.
In the past, the Department of Defense has explored using some quadrupedal Boston Dynamics robots for combat operations, like sending in the dog-sized spot to scout rooms in advance of humans. While the loud noise of these robots is reportedly one reason the Pentagon didn’t ultimately purchase the machines, could the human-like Atlas find a home in the military?
The parkour video makes a compelling case, but it’s not as the gun-toting skull-faced Terminators of fiction. Bipedal machines are not the best design for navigating the natural world, but they are the ideal body type for maneuvering through spaces designed for humans. A robot that can walk through hallways, step over door frames, hop over small obstacles, and even bound its way over rubble could be a perfect tool for rescue work in rubble, or perhaps navigating a part of a ship that’s too dangerous for humans.
With the ability to maintain balance, and with an inability to feel pain, Atlas could become part of the emergency equipment of ships or bases, a machine that can tackle hazards while saving humans from additional risk. I would not expect to see something like Atlas geared toward a combat role ... but rescue? That’s a burden Atlas can shoulder.