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Tall, dark and humanoid: DARPA debuts a startling, 6-foot-tall disaster robot

DARPA's Atlas robot, developed by Boston Dynamics, is 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 330 pounds.
DARPA's Atlas robot, developed by Boston Dynamics, is 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 330 pounds.
DARPA courtesy photo

Imagine the future. A horrific future. A disaster has occurred in L.A. and the government has turned to the robots for help. You are trapped. You are scared. You are running out of time. You are rescued. By this.

Calling it one of the "most-advanced humanoid robots ever built," the U.S. Department of Defense reports Friday that the Atlas robot — a DARPA-funded, disaster relief robot — had its public debut this week in Waltham, Mass.

The Atlas robot, weighing in at 330 pounds and standing at 6 foot 2-inches, is designed to "help humankind deal with future disasters," and was funded by the country's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Boston Dynamics developed the robot as part of DARPA's ongoing Robotics Challenge to:

OK, so, we have hero robots now?

Not yet. The "Challenge" began in October 2012 and ends in December 2014. Teams are competing for a $2 million grant to make more robots.

The first part of the challenge — the virtual/software round — produced seven winning teams. They each received an Atlas robot and DARPA support.

The bots will be programmed and put through a series of events including a live competition in December 2013, which will be open to the public, reports the D.O.D.

“The Virtual Robotics Challenge was a proving ground for teams’ ability to create software to control a robot in a hypothetical scenario,” DARPA Program Manager Dr. Gill Pratt said in a statement.

“The DRC simulator tasks were fairly accurate representations of real-world causes and effects but the experience wasn’t quite the same as handling an actual, physical robot,” said Pratt , adding, “Now these seven teams will see if their simulation-honed algorithms can run a real machine in real environments, and we expect all the teams will be further refining their algorithms using both simulation and experimentation.”

Hello. My name is Atlas robot

Human supervision

Whether or not the robots are running the asylum remains to be seen. According to the American Forces Press Service DARPA wants to demonstrate that robots can be made to use human tools "from screwdrivers to fire trucks." The agency also says robots can be supervised by people who are not trained to operate robots. That's apparently a good thing.

The part where the robot thinks for itself

In a disaster situation, teleoperation or motion level control (like the kind sometimes employed by explosive disposal robots)  would not be "a practical way to communicate with the machines," says Pratt.

As such, the robot would need task-level orders like "turn the handle" or "go up the stairs."

And this, according to Pratt, requires "the robot itself to use [its own] perceptual processing…to understand what it is looking at and then to use behavior controls to execute the task while watching what the effect of the task is."

Think about that. The robots are.

Video | Robots & Teams