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Atlas Unplugged: DARPA challenge robot gets major makeover

Sharon Gaudin | Jan. 23, 2015
Research teams get new version of humanoid robot that is 75 percent new.

Atlas Unplugged
The Boston Dynamics robot being used in the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge got a makeover. The upgraded Atlas robot is 75% new. Credit: DARPA

The 6-foot, 2-in. tall humanoid robot that many teams in the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge will be using in June has gotten a major makeover. And the teams using it in the finals got their first look just last week.

There was a lot to check out since the machine is 75% new, according to DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense research agency sponsoring the challenge.

Only the feet and lower legs of the robot that the teams used in the last phase of the three-part challenge remain in what's been dubbed Atlas Unplugged.

"The new Atlas is 75% new," said Gill Pratt, a DARPA program manager. "Only 25% of the parts in there are from the old Atlas. The rest of them are really for the onboard energy storage, better energy efficiency, much more dexterity -- and the robot is much quieter than before. It also is a little bit stronger, so it can better get off the ground in case it falls."

The research teams in the finals -- including groups from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), MIT and Virginia Tech -- had to say good-bye to their Atlas robots late last year. Boston Dynamics took them back to remake them; the teams now expect to get their new machines on Thursday or Friday.

Boston Dynamics, now owned by Google, made the robot stronger, more agile, able to carry its own power source, run with a new adjustable hydraulic pump and move without a safety tether or communications cable.

The robot, which now weighs 345 pounds, also has newly positioned arms. Unlike the previous version, which had human-like shoulders, the arms on Atlas Unplugged come out from lower on the torso, giving the arms more strength and dexterity.

"The arms look more like the Lost in Space robot where the arms come from the middle of the body," said Matt DeDonato, the technical project manager on the WPI team. "That should give us a little more strength for pushing up off the ground. It should be able to do a push-up and give us more reachability and maneuverability inside our work area."

While the research teams have been waiting to get their new robots, Boston Dynamics let them get a sneak peak last week at a warehouse in Waltham, Mass.

DeDonato, who spent most of last week checking out and working with the new Atlas, said the team members were able to get their software up and running. That's a critical step since there are so many new, moving parts on Atlas Unplugged.


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