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DARPA’s Humanoid Atlas Robot Goes Unplugged

Teams will program an upgraded–and cordless–robot to survive DARPA’s obstacle course next June for $3.5 million in prize money.

DARPA’s Humanoid Atlas Robot Goes Unplugged
[Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

Atlas, the humanoid robot developed by Google-owned Boston Dynamics and overseen by the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is ready to venture unplugged for the final round of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. After the 2013 challenge trials, an estimated 20 teams competing for the $3.5 million prize money have been upgrading their robots to compete in the obstacle-laden finals in June 2015 in Pomona, California.


The challenge isn’t a Battlebots-style brawl between robots built from scratch–each team is given the same Atlas robot at the end of January. They differentiate by building their own custom robot-controlling software and forming a strategy to tackle the various challenges, which may include driving a vehicle, using a tool to cut a hole in a wall, and crossing a terrain field littered with debris and pipes. How the teams attack the tasks and manage battery life will determine who, in the end, wins the $2 million first-place prize, $1 million second place, and $500,000 third-place prizes.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge was created in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, which highlighted the need for robots that can work in conditions too dangerous for humans. The original Atlas robot, itself based on Boston Dynamics’ previous PETMAN bipedal robot, was unveiled in July 2013. Videos of the evolving robot saw it march over obstacles on a treadmill and suffer blows from weights without falling–all necessary tests for a bot that will clamber over broken terrain in unpredictable environments.

The final challenges will reflect the new unplugged Atlas–meaning no arrestor safety wires, power cables, or wired communications. If the robot falls, it has to recover on its own. And to simulate disaster conditions, DARPA will intentionally degrade distance communications. Atlas must survive–and thrive–to be ready for future search-and-rescue operations.

Teams will get a nearly new robot for the finals, rebuilt almost completely from the knees up, featuring an internal 3.7 kW-hour lithium-ion battery and lighter composite materials, so the 6-foot-2 bot is only as heavy as a linebacker at 345 pounds. Other upgrades, like repositioning of the shoulders for greater work area, increased strength via new joint actuators, and an extra degree of wrist freedom boost Atlas’s capability.

“During periodic reviews with the DRC teams we’re already seeing them perform at a much higher level than they were last year. We’re excited to see how much further they can push the technology,” DARPA Robotics Challenge program manager Gill Pratt told SpaceDaily. “As any team will tell you, we’re not making it easy. DARPA has been consulting with our international partners to decide on what steps we need to take to speed the development of disaster-response robots, and the DRC Finals will reflect those realities.”

The teams first competed in a Virtual Robotics Trial in late 2012, putting the Atlas through paces in digital simulation to qualify for an actual Atlas robot, which they modified and programmed for the first round of physical trials in December 2013. At least 20 teams have qualified for the upcoming June finals–including teams funded by Japan, South Korea, and the European Union.

[via SpaceDaily ]