Boston Dynamics spends months training its Atlas robots to perform one minute of parkour almost perfectly

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Video Boston Dynamics has released its flashiest promo video yet: a one-minute clip of not one but two Atlas robots competently completing a parkour obstacle course.

At first glance, it’s simultaneously impressive and bizarre. The pair of fridge-sized machines move fluidly, jumping over blocks, stepping up platforms, and walking over wooden planks before backflipping and striking a self-congratulatory pose. You can watch them in action below:

Youtube Video

This apparently took engineers months to get right. Each jump an Atlas pulls off was not individually preprogrammed, Boston Dynamics insisted. Instead, the robots learned in simulations how to use a small number of provided “template behaviors" to get around a course. That is to say, as far as we can tell, the robots were given a set of basic actions by their creators, and then learned how to use those actions to get from A to B from what they could see around them.

Each Atlas perceives its physical environment using cameras, and so as long as the real world resembles its virtual training world, it should, in theory, be able to select and execute the necessary moves to complete whatever course is in front of it. If all the blocks and planks were completely rearranged, the Atlas may need to be retrained.

“There are a lot of pretty exciting behaviors here, and some of them are not totally reliable yet,” said Ben Stephens, the Atlas controls lead.

“Every behavior here has a small chance of failure. It’s almost 90 seconds of continuous jumping, jogging, turning, vaulting, and flipping, so those probabilities add up.”

The robots were untethered for their acrobatic maneuvers, and Boston Dynamics didn't release any information about their battery life.

Although Atlas appears to be more nimble and daring than before in each promo video, Boston Dynamics hasn’t managed to make any serious money off its parkour-performing robot. Atlas is a research platform and not a commercial product yet, the manufacturer said.

Instead of producing machines to perform specific tasks, Boston Dynamics is investing in humanoid robots that can learn to automatically make do in the environment around them. If engineers can get the bots to move as naturally as humans, they’ll be useful for a wide range of tasks, the biz reckons.

“Humanoids are interesting from a couple perspectives,” said Scott Kuindersma, the Atlas team lead. “First, they capture our vision of a go-anywhere, do-anything robot of the future. They may not be the best design for any particular task, but if you wanted to build one platform that could perform a wide variety of physical tasks, we already know that a human form factor is capable of doing that.”

“From a technical perspective, humanoids present several challenges that we welcome as a research team,” he added. “Their combination of size and complexity creates hardware design tradeoffs related to strength to weight ratio, runtime, range of motion, and physical robustness.

"At the same time, our control team has to create algorithms that can reason about the physical complexity of these machines to create a broad set of high energy and coordinated behavior.”

Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 and has switched ownership many times. It started as a spin-off from an academic project at MIT in America before it was acquired by Alphabet in 2013 and passed to Softbank in 2017. Hyundai, the South Korean automobile maker, now has the largest stake in the business.

The Register has asked Boston Dynamics for further details. ®


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