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Hydraulic humanoid retires and electric successor is revealed

18 April, 2024

Boston Dynamics, the developer of the pioneering Atlas humanoid robot which has starred in many YouTube videos, has retired the original hydraulically-powered version and replaced it with a new electrically-powered successor.

The electric version of Atlas will be stronger, with a broader range of movements. For example, the last-generation hydraulic Atlas (called HD Atlas) could already lift and manoeuvre a variety of heavy, irregular objects. The new version will build on those capabilities and Boston Dynamics is exploring several new gripper variations to meet a diverse set of manipulation needs.

A video marking the retirement of the hydraulic humanoid reveals some of the robot’s mishaps over the years. Several of these show hydraulic fluid gushing out after an accident – one of the drawbacks of the fluid-powered version.

Boston Dynamics is working with the Korean car-maker Hyundai, which acquired it in 2021 and is continuing to invest in the US-based robot-maker. Hyundai is also building a new generation of automotive manufacturing capabilities, which BD says “will serve as a perfect testing ground for new Atlas applications. In the months and years ahead, we’re excited to show what the world’s most dynamic humanoid robot can really do – in the lab, in the factory, and in our lives.”

Boston Dynamics’ CEO Robert Playter has told IEEE Spectrum that BD is targeting proof-of-technology testing in Hyundai factories next year. Hyundai, he added, “is really excited about this venture – they want to transform their manufacturing and they see Atlas as a big part of that.”

In a similar way to the commercial roll-out of Boston’s box-shifting Stretch robot, BD says it will be partnering with a small group of customers, starting with Hyundai, to test and iterate Atlas applications over the next few years.

The company believes that humanoids will be most effective if they are deployed using in-depth models of facilities and lots of data about how they operate. It is equipping the robots with new AI and machine-learning tools, such as reinforcement learning and computer vision, to ensure they can operate and adapt efficiently to complex real-world situations.

Boston Dynamics’ electrically powered Atlas humanoid robot is stronger and more agile than its hydraulic predecessor

BD has focused on legged robots because it wanted to build robots that could balance and move dynamically, and could navigate unstructured, unknown, or antagonistic terrain with ease. The humanoid form factor, it points out, is useful for robots working in a world designed for people.

Boston Dynamics says that the current humanoid form factor doesn’t limit its vision of how bipedal robots can move, what tools they need to succeed, and how they can help people to do more. The electric version of Atlas has been designed to be more powerful, dextrous and agile. The new Atlas may resemble a human form factor, but it is being equipped to move in the most efficient way possible to complete a task, rather than being constrained by a human range of movements.

BD says that the electric Atlas will move in ways that exceed human capabilities, adding it is confident that it can deliver a robot uniquely capable of tackling dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks in real applications.

• Boston Dynamics has revealed that Spot, it’s robotic “dog”, has now been deployed in more than 1,500 applications, teaching hundreds of companies how to work alongside autonomous mobile robots. The company’s recent Orbit software for managing robot fleets and site maps, is currently available for Spot, but Stretch and Atlas will be added in future.

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