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CMU Snakebots Infest Nuclear Power Plant

At some point, to be sustainable, research has to make a jump from "do it because it’s cool" to "do it because it’s actually useful and has some sort of practical application that people need and/or will pay for." That’s a big, big jump to make, and many robots don’t successfully cross the gap. We've been hearing for years that Carnegie Mellon’s snakebots are just the thing to undertake inspection tasks in places like nuclear power plants, but now, CMU has put its robots where its papers are, and have stuffed these things into an actual nuclear power reactor. As you can see above, they've even got the snakes operating the controls. Nope, no reason to worry about that, none at all.

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DARPA Unveils Atlas DRC Robot

UPDATED 6:32 p.m. More details and photos added.

World meet Atlas. Atlas meet world. With a dash of theatrics, this massive humanoid robot was unveiled today by DARPA at the headquarters of Boston Dynamics, just outside Boston. Atlas was built by Boston Dynamics for the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), whose goal is to advance disaster response robotics. The hope is that Atlas is the first step towards the day when robots, not humans, will be sent to help mitigate major catastrophes, such as the Fukushima nuclear accident.

Boston Dynamics president Robert Playter had Atlas run through a few basic tests for the audience of press and teams participating in the DRC, including a walking demo on a treadmill. As DARPA program manager Gill Pratt explained, in its current form Atlas is "roughly at the competence level of a 1-year-old child." In fact, the demonstrations today were a bit underwhelming (c'mon guys, no push-ups?!) given the complex disaster-response related tasks DARPA has announced for the challenge.

More sophisticated behavior will have to wait until these teams get their Atlases back to their home laboratories, where they will spend many long hours programming the robots to complete the tasks ahead of the competition trials (Pratt estimates that this work will bring Atlas up to about the level of a human 2-year old.) These trials will be held in December at a speedway in Florida, and will be open to the public. The time and location were chosen to minimize the chances of rain, as the Atlas is not yet waterproof.

Atlas itself incorporates hardware from different companies. Boston Dynamics built most of the robot: the torso, arms, legs, and feet. The head is built by Carnegie Robotics, and features a sophisticated range of sensors designed to give the robot 3D awareness of its surroundings, including a laser range finder. Two different pairs of hands will be supplied to the teams, one built by iRobot and the other by Sandia National Labs. Teams will be free to mix and match hands, so a competing Atlas could have a left hand from iRobot, and a right hand from Sandia.

The teams at the unveiling had already met Atlas privately: they were at Boston Dynamics learning how to work with the robot, including the safety issues involved with working with a 150-kilogram robot that can move very fast. Each team will go home with an Atlas, and Boston Dynamics has worked to make the robots as identical as possible. A backup Atlas will be brought to Florida in case of mechanical problems.

Below, photos, specs, and a video of the robot. Check back on Monday, when we'll have more footage of Atlas and interviews with DRC participants.


  • Six feet, two inches tall (1.88m)
  • 330 pounds (150kg)
  • On-board real-time control computer
  • On-board hydraulic pump and thermal management
  • Tethered for networking and 480-V three-phase power at 15 kW
  • Two arms, two legs, a torso and a head
  • 28 hydraulically actuated joints
  • Carnegie Robotics sensor head with LIDAR and stereo sensors
  • Two sets of hands, one provided by iRobot and one by Sandia National Labs

The video below, released by DARPA today, has a bunch of old footage, but some new stuff too, although it doesn't appear to show the same version of Atlas that we're seeing in the photo doing anything besides standing there and waving its arms:

Here are photos we took today of the Atlas unveil at Boston Dynamics:

Full body
Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA Robotics Challenge

The head
Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA Robotics Challenge

The sensor face
Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA Robotics Challenge

Chest (no, this is not a flux capacitor, it's just decorative)
Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA Robotics Challenge

Tail, er, tether (for networking and electric power)
Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA Robotics Challenge

Crotch shot
Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA Robotics Challenge

Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA Robotics Challenge

Hand option 1, by iRobot
Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA Robotics Challenge

Hand option 2, by Sandia
Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA Robotics Challenge

Lower legs
Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA Robotics Challenge

Walking test Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA Robotics Challenge


Images: DARPA/Boston Dynamics (top two photos); Stephen Cass/IEEE Spectrum (other photos)


Honda Developing Disaster Response Robot Based on ASIMO

Following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, Honda reportedly received numerous requests to send its humanoid robot ASIMO  to help with the recovery. ASIMO, however, wasn't designed to work outside a lab or office environment, let alone a highly radioactive rubble-strewn zone. Now it looks like Honda is working to address the problem by developing a bigger, beefed-up version of ASIMO that can walk, crawl, and perform tasks in a disaster environment.

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NASA Flaunts Design for 2020 Mars Rover

Last December, NASA officially announced that it was planning to send a robotic rover to Mars in 2020 as a follow-up to Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. Obviously, we're pretty damn excited. Yesterday, JPL released some details about what they've been working on, and the plans that the Mars 2020 Science Definition Team has for their fancy new rover.

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Next Generation Canadarm to Focus on Satellite Servicing

As much as we love Canada, our northern neighbors don't exactly have a huge space program going on up there, probably because you can't launch rockets on maple syrup.

I kid, of course. You can totally do that.

Anyway, the Canadian Space Agency is probably best known for two things: Chris Hadfield, and the Canadarm and Canadarm2. These giant robotic space-arms have been flying on the space shuttle since 1981, and the latest currently serves as Dextre's lower body on the ISS. As always, we're wondering what the next generation of Canadarm is going to be like, so we were excited to see this video from the CSA showcasing their next generation Canadarm project: the "Next-Generation Canadarm Project." Mind = blown. 

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Honda's ASIMO Gets New Job at Museum

Honda's famed humanoid robot ASIMO has many skills, including running, serving drinks, hopping on one foot, and kicking a soccer ball. And it absolutely loves to dance. But despite its capabilities, the reality is that most of ASIMO's actions are pre-programmed, and the humanoid relies heavily on hidden operators monitoring the robot's every move and triggering its responses, like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. Now Honda wants to change that and it has recently started testing new autonomous behaviors for ASIMO at a Tokyo museum. The new gig, however, seems to have had a rough start.

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Video Wednesday: Robot Film Fest, Hexacopter Rescue, and RoboCup 2013

What is this? Video Wednesday?! Shocking, I know. Apparently, there's some U.S. holiday on Thursday celebrating explosives or something, and I have been told that both Thursday and Friday are therefore "days off" at IEEE Spectrum (and most of the rest of the U.S.). I'm not entirely sure what a "day off" is, but because two of them are happening anyway, we're going to stuff all of this week's robot videos into Wednesday instead.

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DARPA Robotics Challenge Follow-Up: Competition Videos, Bloopers

When DARPA's Virtual Robotics Challenge (VRC) wrapped last Thursday, we got all the results, but not much more. What we wanted was to see some of the actual competition runs themselves, especially the ones that went either very right or very wrong. DARPA released some videos over the weekend giving us a taste of how things went, and we were also treated to an extensive public Q&A session with DARPA program manager Gill Pratt and Nate Koenig of the OSRF.

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IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, drones, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
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Senior Writer
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Angelica Lim

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