Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot grows a set of hands, attempts construction work


Boston Dynamics’ Atlas—the world’s most advanced humanoid robot—is learning some new tricks. The company has finally given Atlas some proper hands, and in Boston Dynamics’ latest YouTube video, Atlas is attempting to do some actual work. It also released another behind-the-scenes video showing some of the work that goes into Atlas. And when things don’t go right, we see some spectacular slams the robot takes in its efforts to advance humanoid robotics.

As a humanoid robot, Atlas has mostly been focused on locomotion, starting with walking in a lab, then walking on every kind of unstable terrain imaginable, then doing some sick parkour tricks. Locomotion is all about the legs, though, and the upper half seemed mostly like an afterthought, with the arms only used to swing around for balance. Atlas previously didn’t even have hands—the last time we saw it, there were only two incomplete-looking ball grippers at the end of its arms.

This newest iteration of the robot has actual grippers. They’re simple clamp-style hands with a wrist and a single moving finger, but that’s good enough for picking things up. The goal of this video is moving “inertially significant” objects—not just picking up light boxes, but objects that are so heavy they can throw Atlas off-balance. This includes things like a big plank, a bag full of tools, and a barbell with two 10-pound weights. Atlas is learning all about those “equal and opposite forces” in the world.

Like everything in robotics, picking up and carrying an object is more complicated than it seems. Atlas has to figure out where it is in the world in relation to the object it’s picking up, come up with a grasping plan for the hands, and lift and manipulate the object, all while calculating how this extra bit of mass will affect its balance. As Boston Dynamics software engineer Robin Deits explains in the video, “When we’re trying to manipulate something like a plank, we have to just make pretty educated guesses about where is the plank, how fast is it moving, how do we need to move the arms to cause the plank to spin 180 degrees very quickly, and if we get those estimates wrong we end up doing silly things and falling over.”

Atlas isn’t just clumsily picking things up and carrying them, though. It’s running, jumping, and spinning while carrying heavy objects. At one point it jumps and throws the heavy toolbox up to its construction partner, all without losing balance. It’s doing all this on rickety scaffolding and improvised plank walkways, too, so the ground is constantly moving under Atlas’ feet with every step. Picking up stuff is the start of teaching the robot to do actual work, and it looks right at home on a rough-and-tumble construction site. The simple claw grippers mean Atlas crushes everything it picks up, though, with objects like the plank showing visible damage where the hands dug into it. Maybe the next set of experiments will teach Atlas to be less of a hulking gorilla.