Robotics

Atlas shrugged: Boston Dynamics retires its hydraulic humanoid robot

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Boston Dynamics' Atlas in action
Image Credits: Boston Dynamics

Now that humanoids are all the rage in the robotics industry, Boston Dynamics on Tuesday officially retired theirs. The Hyundai-owned firm has always marched to the beat of its own drummer. Even so, it’s an odd decision as funding pours into the category by the hundreds of millions.

Venturing an educated guess, I would say that today’s Atlas retirement is less about endings than new beginnings. Most likely, the hulking humanoid is gracefully stepping out of the way of whatever is coming next for the firm.

Boston Dynamics has been focused on commercializing technologies for a number of years now. Hyundai’s 2021 acquisition of the firm, coupled with the appointment of Robert Playter as its second-ever CEO, has further accelerated that path. Given the tremendous interest around companies like Agility, Figure, 1X and Apptronik, it stands to reason that — at the very least — the Waltham, Massachusetts-based company has — at the very least — seriously explored the commercial humanoid category.

Boston Dynamics was, of course, well ahead of the current humanoid robotics curve. Last July marked the 10th anniversary of the bipedal robot’s debut. The company teamed with DARPA for Atlas’ early development, leading the robot to be heavily incorporated into challenges of the era.

“At the time of its debut, Atlas was one of the most advanced humanoid robots ever built,” DARPA notes, “but it was essentially a physical shell for the software brains and nerves that the teams developed.”

Then-DARPA program manager Gill Pratt compared the robot to a human infant. “A one-year-old child can barely walk, a one-year-old child falls down a lot,” he said. “As you see these machines and you compare them to science fiction, just keep in mind that this is where we are right now.”

Atlas has taken many strides in the intervening decade, of course, as the bipedal robot continues to factor into Boston Dynamics’ research and promotional material. Today, however, marks the end of the road for the robot. While many of the system’s advances in locomotion still impress, certain aspects, like its hydraulics, are antiquated by contemporary robotics standards.

Another wrinkle in today’s news is that, as of February, Boston Dynamics was still showcasing Atlas’ capabilities. In fact, the company seemed to be teasing at commercializing the project with the release of a video called “Atlas Struts” (not Atlas Shrugs, mind).

The video’s official caption reads, “Can’t trip Atlas up! Our humanoid robot gets ready for real work combining strength, perception, and mobility.” The video, meanwhile, showcased some cool augmented reality perception tricks and a new grasper that appeared specifically designed for work on the factory floor. Given Hyundai’s ownership of the firm, it’s easy to imagine some eventual Atlas descendant helping to build future cars.

Meantime, in lieu of a gold watch, Boston Dynamics is offering up a video featuring some of Atlas’ greatest hits and most spectacular falls. It’s one final blooper reel that demonstrates just how much work goes into those perfectly choreographed videos.

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