(Source: Boston Dynamics/Columbia Pictures)
Mr. Miyagi would be proud... or, possibly, terrified

Google Inc. (GOOG) recently lost its robotics chief and former CEO of Android Inc., Andy Rubin.  But it's not letting that departure slow its effort to produce terrifying, powerful humanoid machinations.  This week one could almost swear that it had its robots silently mouthing those famous words from Keanu Reeves in 1999's The Matrix -- "I know Kung fu."

I. The World's Second Most Dangerous Robotic Biped

Okay, so the Atlas robot isn't quite ready to go all bullet time and go mano a mano with Agent Smith.  But the design has come a long ways in just a few short months, thanks to Google's algorithm team, which has been cooking up better brains for the bot with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Comp. Sci. and AI Lab (CSAIL).

Meanwhile Google's subsidiary, Boston Dynamics -- who built the robot in the first place -- is bulking the brawn, building mechanical systems.  But the Atlas 2.0 won't just be more powerful.  It will also be more lithe, as it's dropping the bulky external power cable.

ATLAS robot

ATLAS's first generation model (pictured) is getting an upgrade.

Just a few months ago it was struggling to lift its loafers up over debris and to trust along ramps in the "Rescue Challenge", a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) annual Robotics Challenge Trials event.

A team from the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) was one of several teams in the competition guiding these unwieldy androids through a series of challenges.  The challenges were supposed to simulate recovery efforts during a major disaster (you know, a major disaster like robots going terminator on their masters).

ATLAS over rubble
ATLAS climbs carefully up over rubble, in DARPA's 2013 trials. [Image Source: The MIT Tech Review]

For all its flaws, the 6 foot (1.8 meter) tall robot in the hands of IHMC was good enough to score a second place finish, earning 20 out of 32 points (4 per trial, x8 trials).  Only Schaft Inc.'s S-One bipedal humanoid bested it (scoring 27 out of 32 points).

Did we mention that Google owns Schaft too?  Yep, the spinoff of the University of Tokyo's Jouhou System Kougaku Lab (JSK Lab) was scooped up by Google last year.  After its big win, S-One is dropped out of chasing DARPA prizes and is reportedly on to bigger and better things -- commercialization.

For ATLAS, though, it's no time to rest on its laurels.  In fact, time is of the essence, as Boston Dynamics has promised and untethered version of ATLAS by next February.  

In reality it's a third generation design.  The Boston Dynamics biped began its existence as the bulky Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin (PETMAN).

II. Before ATLAS There Was PETMAN

Funding for PETMAN came from a Nov. 2008 and April 2009 contracts for $26.3M USD from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).  The contracts were awarded to the Midwest Research Institute (MRI), Boston Dynamics, and two other smaller contractors who worked together to develop a moving mannequin capable of testing chemical warfare suits.  MRI ended up two much of the software and integration, while Boston Dynamics spearheaded the mechanics development.

By the time PETMAN was complete in mid-2009, the headless construct was about the same size as ATLAS (6 ft, 1.8 m), but weighed roughly half as much (80kg, 180lb).  It was the fastest bipedal robot in the world at the time, capable of trotting at 4.4mph (7.08km/h) on smooth surfaces.  

PETMAN was a solid success. [Image Source: Boston Dynamics]

The project was mostly complete by 2011, and was generally a success.  Boston Dynamics and its partners had delivered something unique.

So in 2012 development began on a PETMAN successor -- ATLAS (a title which often occurs as an acronym, though, it's not widely been publicized what it stands for).  ATLAS was public unveiled in July 2013.

Where PETMAN had 3 degrees of freedom, ATLAS had 28.  It also gained weight, bulking up to 330 lb (150 kg), in part by adding stronger limbs and new parts -- hands and a head.  One hand was designed by Sandia National Laboratories, while the other was designed by iRobot Corp. (IRBT) (the same company that makes the popular ROOMBA).  The head was crafted by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and featured both laser-depth perception (LIDAR) and stereoscopic optical vision.

III. Off the Leash and Dangerous

This bulkier disaster relief model was reportedly inspired, in part, by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a disaster which in part was guaranteed due to local authorities being paralyzed by concerns for employee safety.  The failing reactor's high levels of radiation made it difficult to service the damaged nuclear power device until it was far too late.  But in the future, a machine like ATLAS could help mankind boldly go in such an area that's too dangerous for man to go.

In the recent DARPA challenge, the IHRC team scored the highest of any team at door opening, using the ATLAS.

ATLAS robot
The new ATLAS is expected to be much more stable.  This in turn allow it to remove the electrical tethering, which currently serves as a key balance mechanism.

This week Google (via its Boston Dynamics unit) showed off its progress of improving the balance of ATLAS.  In the video the robot shows off its new karate skills, doing an awe-inspiring, but slightly terrifying rendition of a famous scene from the 1984 martial arts drama Karate Kid

(Beware the shrill buzz of ATLAS' hydraulics, they're kind of annoying.)

The robot is currently strung up to a 480 volt, 15 kilowatt 3-phase power supply.  It will shed that, though for a high capacity battery pack.  This advance first required a lot of work on the bot's balance, as the cable was partially used in early designs to provide support.

In addition to losing the power cables, the robot will also get another new trick -- the ability to operate autonmously for up to 30 seconds at a time.  The idea is that the robot might be subjected to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and lose contact with its operators.  With the first generation model, such a failure would be catastrophic.  With the second-generation model that might not be a big deal for much longer.

ATLAS trio

The DOD insists that it has no interest in using ATLAS as an offensive or defensive weapon.  But if Google and its unit Boston Dynamics can achieve their lofty dreams, it may find itself having a tough time resisting the charms of Google's martial-arts-trained biped.

Sources: YouTube, via The Verge

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