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SYFY WIRE Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics' Atlas robots close in on world domination after nailing parkour course (almost)

By Vanessa Armstrong
Boston Dynamics Atlas

We’ve seen Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robots do flips and dance with Spot, the company's robotic “dog.” What we haven’t seen, however, is the robots dominating a parkour course or the behind-the-scenes efforts of the team that makes Atlas so cool/terrifying.

That changed today. Boston Dynamics released a five-minute video of Atlas’ impressive new moves. The clip shows Atlas nailing a parkour course (well... almost) and includes interviews and footage of the BD team fixing and fiddling with the robots’ complex mechanics.

Check out the video:

The video runs the gamut, showing both footage of the robots messing up as well as excelling at the parkour course. In the end, however, the team got two Atlas robots to complete the course, though it wasn’t as perfect as they would have liked. After one of the robots completed its final backflip, it was apparently supposed to, as the company's website explains, “pump its arm like a big-league pitcher after a game-ending strikeout.”

The robot completed this move — which the BD team calls the “Cha-Ching” — but stumbled a bit while doing so. “We hadn’t run that behavior after the backflip before today, so that was really an experiment,” Scott Kuindersma, the Atlas team lead at Boston Dynamics, said in an article on the website. “If you watch the video closely, it looks a little awkward. We’re going to swap in a behavior we’ve tested before so we have some confidence it will work.”

Those fearful of the planet becoming overridden with super-robots can rest a little easier, knowing this version of Atlas still cannot master the “Cha-Ching” after a backflip.

Atlas still can do parkour pretty darn well though, which begs the question — why teach robots to do parkour at all (besides world domination, of course)? Kuindersma has an answer. “It’s really about creating behaviors at the limits of the robot’s capabilities and getting them all to work together in a flexible control system,” he said. “There are many important problems that parkour doesn’t force you to address, but that’s not the point. We’re not trying to solve everything all at once. The work we’re doing now is allowing us to create a solid foundation for tackling the next set of research problems.”

One can only hope that the next set of research problems don’t include building SkyNet. Boston Dynamics’ Atlas team has more positive aspirations for the robots, of course. “I find it hard to imagine a world 20 years from now where there aren’t capable mobile robots that move with grace, reliability, and work alongside humans to enrich our lives,” Kuindersma said. “But we’re still in the early days of creating that future. I hope that demonstrations like this provide a small glimpse of what’s possible.”