Boston Dynamics Gets Atlas to Help Out Around a "Building Site" — with a Little Tool Tossing

Showing off its newfound ability to manipulate its environment, the bipedal Atlas dramatically delivers a forgotten tool bag.

Robotics specialist Boston Dynamics has shown off its latest developments on the Atlas biped platform — showcasing its ability to navigate a simulated building site and deliver tools by throwing them over to a human colleague.

"It’s time for Atlas to pick up a new set of skills and get hands on. In this [demo]," the company explains, "the humanoid robot manipulates the world around it: Atlas interacts with objects and modifies the course to reach its goal—pushing the limits of locomotion, sensing, and athleticism."

In the short demo, a human operate located at the top of scaffolding uses a control pad to order an Atlas at ground level to deliver a forgotten tool. Springing into action — quite literally — the Atlas then proceeds to build a bridge to the scaffolding's lower level using a wooden plank, picks up a bag of tools, jogs along the bridge and hops onto an intermediate level — before performing a spinning-throw to deliver the tools, somewhat ungently, to the worker positioned above.

The humanoid Atlas has a new string to its bow: The ability to toss you tools you've forgotten to pick up on your way up a scaffold. (📹: Boston Dynamics)

In a final somewhat-unnecessary demonstration of its fluid movement capabilities Atlas then pushes a large wooden crate off the edge of the scaffolding — presumably after verifying there's nobody below — and jumps down onto it before dismounting with a show-off flip.

"In this video we're doing a lot of object manipulation," Atlas team lead Scott Kuindersma explains of the demo. "Lifting this piece of wood, placing it down, lifting up the tool bag, and eventually jumping and trying to throw it precisely up onto the top left. So, Atlas has a couple of cameras that we use to see the world around it and they work not entirely unlike a human eyeballs — so we can see the colors of objects, of things around us, and we can get some information about how far they are away.

"We use that to build models of the environment so we might know that we're going to be running over a sequence of boxes, and so we see some box-like shapes out in front of us [and] we decide 'oh, those are probably boxes' and we go and we decide to run on top of each of those boxes and that works really well when the environment looks something like what we're expecting."

The company is keen to see Atlas deployed as a useful and agile assistant for a range of use-cases. (📹: Boston Dynamics)

That's only part of the problem, though, and a part the company has previously showcased in earlier Atlas demonstrations. This time, though, the robot is able to manipulate the bag of tools too — sending it flying through the air to the human worker. "The way that we approach this problem," Kuindersma explains, "is a technique called 'model predictive control,' and the idea is that the robot's control system should be able to think about how its motion is going to evolve in time in a way that respects the physical laws of our universe.

"So, for example, if you're imagining the robots holding a heavy object while trying to run, or pushing something that weighs on the order of its body mass across the room, carefully considering the forces that exist between the robot and the object and how that might or might not tip the robot over."

The humanoid Atlas robot is an impressive platform, but lesser known than the company's quadrupedal Spot — already commercially available and which received a big upgrade last year with the addition of color cameras and an edge-AI payload drive by NVIDIA's Jetson NX system-on-module (SOM).

The full video is available on the Boston Dynamics YouTube channel, along with a second video explaining the work that went into the demonstration.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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