CONTRIBUTOR

Engineering and robotics company Boston Dynamics took the wraps off an updated version of its Atlas humanoid robot, which is now fully electric.

 

Atlas will be put into test service focused on helping build cars for South Korean automaker Hyundai, which bought Boston Dynamics in 2021 for $1.1 billion.

The company promises the all-electric five-foot-tall robot will have enhanced strength and a wider range of motion compared to the previous generation.

While the last generation hydraulic Atlas, introduced in 2013, could lift and maneuver heavy, irregular objects, the updated robot will offer gripper variations to cater to diverse manipulation needs.

Boston Dynamics is also focused on how robots are deployed into existing and evolving manufacturing and IT infrastructure.

This concerns not only connectivity and operational processes but employee engagement, workflows and safety standards. Beyond hardware, the company is also evolving the robot’s software, including incorporation of AI and machine learning tools. Reinforcement learning and computer vision, for example, enable robots to operate efficiently in complex real-world scenarios.

The company’s Orbit software, which it first announced for the four-legged robot Spot, offers a centralized platform for managing robot fleets, including site maps and digital transformation data – both Atlas and Boston Dynamic’s Stretch robot will be connected to this enterprise solution.

Orbit also provides mission scheduling and review capabilities, allowing companies to run missions aligned to day-to-day operations and plan downtime or designated exclusions.

The software also enables remote operation from anywhere by providing access to its camera feeds, direction of its movements, and conduction of manual inspections using sensor payloads.

A Boston Dynamics blog post detailing the updated Atlas noted the humanoid form—while useful in a world designed for bi-pedal people—has capabilities beyond the human body thanks to increased articulation and super-human strength.

“Atlas may resemble a human form factor, but we are equipping the robot to move in the most efficient way possible to complete a task, rather than being constrained by a human range of motion,” the post stated.

In a celebratory video sendoff to Atlas, which in addition to being an impressive feat of engineering was also a one-humanoid meme generator, Boston Dynamics showed off the lighter side of advanced robotics with a three-and-a-half minute blooper reel.

Earlier this month Apptronik, another maker of humanoid robotics, and German luxury auto giant Mercedes, announced a partnership on automotive manufacturing with AI-powered machines.

Mercedes plans to deploy Apollo humanoid robots to transport parts for assembly by workers and simultaneously inspect components, a process known as assembly kit delivery.

The goal is to assist assembly workers in vehicle production and involves exploring advanced robotics applications, particularly in optimizing logistics and automating physically demanding tasks within the carmakers manufacturing facilities.

Elon Musk, CEO and co-founder of electric automaker Tesla, is also working on a 5-foot-9-inch humanoid robot called Bot, which combines robotics and AI and could be used in applications in manufacturing or for performing simple household chores.

In the broader field of Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS), flexible manufacturing ecosystems are comprised of customized robotic solutions aimed at specific industry requirements. This type of solution could reduce entry barriers for customers, offering the advantages of robotic manufacturing without hefty investments in equipment, expertise and material procurement.

Pedro Pacheco, a Gartner analyst, says all these announcements and developments indicate the role of humanoid robots is becoming ever more prevalent—however it’s still early days and many questions around performance and cost remain unanswered.

“Boston Dynamics has been in this game for a long time,” he says. “They have a lot of experience, and while other companies have come into the game, they have been working on this for longer.”

He points out advancements in electric motors offer significant advantages for humanoid robots, providing smaller and lighter yet powerful torque generation essential for tasks such as lifting heavy loads.

“Moreover, precision in movement is crucial for executing tasks requiring accuracy, making electric actuators ideal due to their ability to deliver precise and stable movements, without the shakiness associated with other types of actuators,” he says.

The simplified architecture and improved interaction between sensors, electronics and actuators leads to greater efficiency and versatility in robot design.

From Pacheco’s perspective, the big step forward for robots will be achieving a level of dexterity and flexibility allowing them to perform more complex tasks related to assembly of a vehicle or in other applications.

“Once we get there, then we will have a real game changer,” he says. “Personally, I think we’re not there. I don’t know how far this new Atlas can go.”