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Atlas unplugged! DARPA's unTerminator robot cuts the power cable

Google's new humanoid machine also comes with a kill-switch

Atlas, the 6ft 2in (1.88m), 345lb (156kg) humanoid machine being used in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), has had an extensive upgrade and is now free to roam on battery power alone, the defense research group has said.

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The original Atlas, designed by Boston Dynamics (now owned by Google) in 2013, was an all-metal beast permanently tethered to a wall socket, but the upgraded version will carry an onboard 3.7-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. That's enough juice for one hour of "mixed mission" work, such as walking or using tools.

The new unit also has a hydraulic variable-pressure pump build into its torso that increases Atlas' strength. It also is much quieter than the robot's old pump, which was so noisy that teams had to wear ear protectors during operations.

"The introduction of a battery and variable-pressure pump into Atlas poses a strategic challenge for teams," said Gill Pratt, program manager for the DRC. "The operator will be able to run the robot on a mid-pressure setting for most operations to save power, and then apply bursts of maximum pressure when additional force is needed. The teams are going to have to game out the right balance of force and battery life to complete the course."

To make space for this, 75 per cent of the robot's original parts have been replaced or removed and part of the body shell has been replaced with plastics. Atlas carries three new "perception computers" with a wireless router for control, and has also been given more agile wrists and arms.

The DRC finals are on June 5 and DARPA has announced new rules to make the competition tougher. Atlas units will have to drive a vehicle to a test site, clear and open a rubble-strewn doorway, and break down a concrete wall. Once inside the test building, Atlas must then climb a ladder, get across a walkway, close a circular manual valve and turn on – and operate – a fire hose.

DARPA said competitors will have to run the robot on battery alone, and without a safety tether to keep it upright. The competition organizers will also degrade the wireless signal at times during the competition to test how the different team's software ability copes.

"Risk mitigation is part of the game," Pratt said. "It's up to the teams to decide what chances they're willing to take during training and risk falls and damage, but come the DRC Finals, the cords are cut."

So far, 11 teams have made it to the finals and seven will use Atlas, rather than their own robot designs. The first stage of the competition held in December 2013 was Atlas-dominated and the winning team, Japanese gang SCHAFT (which Google dug enough to buy) used DARPA's hardware.

Given it builds the test robot, and has the current best team, the Chocolate Factory is the clearly the current favorite. Up for grabs in $3.5m in prize money, but the post-competition contracts and spinoffs will be where most of the teams make out.

We'll see what transpires in June, but for those of a nervous disposition – particularly in light of popular cinema and Atlas' martial arts skills – there's no need to worry. DARPA also insists that all teams use a wireless kill switch on Atlas, just in case. ®

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