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DARPA unveils 6-foot-tall humanoid robot Atlas for researchers to program and pilot

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DARPA's Atlas robot by Boston Dynamics (Credit: DARPA)
DARPA's Atlas robot by Boston Dynamics (Credit: DARPA)

It's not quite Terminator, but it's not that far off either: Check out Atlas, a new, 6-foot, 2-inch-tall humanoid robot designed for a contest being held by US Defense Department. The 290-pounds machine is being called "one of the most advanced humanoid robots ever built," in no small part due to its 28 different hydraulic joints and freakishly good balance. Unveiled publicly for the first time earlier this week, it's the latest robot from Boston Dynamics, the company behind such internet robotic sensations as Petman (a robotic man) and AlphaDog (a robotic dog), both designed for the US Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). But unlike those previous robots, which were restricted to military and company usage, the keys to Atlas will be turned over to a few lucky civilians, so that they can program and pilot it using their own software.




That's because Atlas is one of several robots competing in DARPA's Virtual Robotics Challenge, a public contest with a $2 million grand prize that DARPA launched in October last year. The contest invited researchers from universities and companies across the county to design and build the best humanoid robotic systems they could, for the purpose of diaster response (think the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in the wake of the 2011 Japanese tsunami). DARPA announced today that it has picked six teams from around the country, including ones fielded by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the acclaimed robotics school Carnegie Mellon University, to advance onto the first series of physical trials scheduled for this coming December in Miami (see the robots in the video below).

But all those teams had to build their own robot designs. Another seven teams selected by DARPA will get to compete using Atlas, but they have to do so by programing the robot using their own custom software. The teams already had a chance to test their software out on a computer simulated version of Atlas, but "now these seven teams will see if their simulation-honed algorithms can run a real machine in real environments," said Gill Prat, the DARPA challenge's program manager, in a statement. Whatever happens come December in Miami, the contest is bound to be more exciting and terrifying than even the best episode of BattleBots. In the mean time, check out the video DARPA released showing the progression of Atlas from its earliest prototypes through to its final design, revealed today: