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Boston Dynamics’ newest humanoid can stomp through snowdrifts

Boston Dynamics released a video showing its Atlas robot handling a series of human-like tasks. “It’s definitely impressive,” Taskin Padir, a Northeastern University engineering professor, said.
Boston Dynamics
Boston Dynamics released a video showing its Atlas robot handling a series of human-like tasks. “It’s definitely impressive,” Taskin Padir, a Northeastern University engineering professor, said.

C-3PO would be jealous.

The newest YouTube sensation is not a pop singer or professional videogame player. It’s a two-legged robot from Google-owned Boston Dynamics whose balance and hiking skills would have the gilded Star Wars droid blushing with envy.

As is customary for Boston Dynamics, the company posted a video on YouTube that demonstrated Atlas’s newest abilities, suggesting that warehouses could be the first place the human-shaped robots are put to work.

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The most human-like of the company’s creations, the robot is a serious upgrade from previous klutzy models — one of which fell over and broke an arm during a widely-viewed event. Earlier versions were also tethered to wires for commands and power.

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In the new video, the “humanoid” ambled through the woods, tracked robot steps through the snow, stacked 10-pound cartons on shelves, and then showed itself out by pushing open a door and stepping into the daylight.

The Internet responded with a resounding gasp: within 12 hours the video had been viewed more than 2 million times. The reason everyone’s going bananas? No one’s yet seen a robot execute these maneuvers with such ease and nonchalance. It all looks stunningly … normal.

All the more so because the Atlas we know is notoriously clumsy.

The limits of humanoid locomotion were on painful public display last summer, when an earlier model of the Atlas robot competed in a contest hosted by the federal government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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Teams of some of the world’s best robotics engineers directed various models of humanoids to perform tasks akin to emergency response in dangerous or unstable environments. A handful of teams chose Atlas as their model.

For two days the robots, including Atlas, stalled and stumbled their way through obstacle courses, sometimes dropping tools, sometimes keeling over.

By comparison, the new Atlas model’s abilities look almost Olympian. Most significantly, it can pick itself up after being knocked down.

“It’s definitely impressive,” said Taskin Padir, a Northeastern University engineering professor. “Boston Dynamics has been one of the leading companies on legged locomotion for many, many years. It’s what they do really well.’’

Before moving to Northeastern, Padir taught at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and led a team that competed at the DARPA trials, finishing seventh.

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“The new Atlas incorporated all the improvements that we teams had in mind when we here working on the earlier version,” he said. Among them: a lighter, smaller build, better agility, and a well-developed sense of balance.

But Boston Dynamics would not comment on the Internet sensation it had unleashed.

Michael Gennert, professor and director of robotics engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said the new Atlas represents a big upgrade from the machine he used in the competition.

“We know how hard it is to stay upright while walking through the snow uphill,” Gennert said. “It’s quite a demonstration of this robot’s stability and balance.” He added that such a robot would be well suited to maneuvering through earthquake zones or burnt-out buildings. “This is exactly what you need to have your robot walk through that kind of unknown environment.”

Padir said that the warehouse scenario suggested in the Boston Dynamics video – or a similar controlled environment — could be among the earliest situations in which such a robot could be used commercially.

Getting off on the right, ahem, foot with a hit “killer” application would go a long way toward establishing the robot’s commercial potential, according to Helen Greiner, who founded Bedford robot maker iRobot and led that company before founding CyPhy Works, which builds drones. But, “I’d be a little concerned about the price-point right now, how much it would cost,” she said.

Greiner said that a warehouse-type application in a predictable environment may be around the corner. “If it’s going to the store for you — that may be a while.” 

One big hurdle to letting robots loose among people is that they are not yet programmed to safely interact with them.

Gennert said that when he and his colleagues push their Atlas around, it’s always with sticks and never with their bare hands. In the video, Boston Dynamics engineers do the same. “I would say it’s still not ready to interact with people very closely,” said Gennert. “I think you could still get hurt by the Atlas robot, even though it’s smaller and lighter.”

Semi-humanoid robots already have made strides in the real world. Pepper, a robot that moves around on wheels rather than legs, greets visitors to retail stores in Japan with high-fives and hugs. Japan telecom SoftBank Group invested in French company Aldebaran Robotics and commissioned it to build a social robot with a playful personality that could provide information and advice to shoppers. The result was Pepper, and according to the company, SoftBank now uses about 2,000 of those robots in stores.

Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 by engineer Marc Raibert, who was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University before starting the company. The company relied on contracts from DARPA and the military for several years and broke ground on technologies for two- and four-legged robots that noisily clambered over turf-like hills and sand. Too noisily, it turned out. A report in December had members of the Marine Corps saying such a machine would blow their cover.

Google, which is now a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., bought Boston Dynamics in 2013, alongside a handful of other robotics acquisitions, among them a Korean robotics maker called Schaft that also made some sturdy machines.

Globe reporter Hiawatha Bray contributed to this report. Nidhi Subbaraman can be reached at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @NidhiSubs.