IHMC's ATLAS Robot Learning to Do Some Chores

Meet the robot butler that you will never, ever be able to afford

3 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

IHMC's ATLAS Robot Learning to Do Some Chores
Image: IHMC via YouTube

Since their flawless (well, almost flawless) second place finish at the DRC Finals, Team IHMC has been keeping their ATLAS robot busy. Busy doing what? Chores. Because if you have a multi-million dollar robot from the U.S. Government, you might as well get it to sweep up your Nerf darts with a broom.

We spoke with John Carff, ATLAS robot operator at IHMC, about what was going on behind the scenes in this video (which, by the way, you’re watching at 20x normal speed). Our first question was why the heck IHMC is teaching ATLAS to clean house, and sadly, the answer is not “because we’re about to announce the availability of that robot butler you’ve always wanted.” Rather, it’s because ATLAS needs to be run often to make sure that code updates don’t break anything, and running the same tasks (like DRC tasks) over and over again gets boring. So, IHMC just came up with a bunch of fun ideas, and tried to get ATLAS to do them, and this is something that they hope to continue to do (yay!).

Carff explained to us that the control system and user interface (UI) is largely unchanged from what they were working with during the DRC. Besides some minor bug fixes, the only major addition is an option to have the robot walk while keeping its hands in front of it, allowing it to perform tasks like sweeping. Just as with the DRC, not much of this is fully autonomous, but a lot of it is semi-autonomous with human supervision.

“Most of the stuff in this video is controlled by me, but in a co-active way. I’m not simply sitting there with a joystick teleoperating the robot: I tell the robot through the UI that I want to grab a bottle off the table by clicking the bottle and making sure that the resulting hand is in the correct place. Then, the robot tells me how it’s going to move its entire body to reach that location, through a preview in the UI. If I’m okay with the plan the robot has come up with, I tell it to execute that motion. In the future, I can see a lot of what was done in this video moving more to the autonomous side, but I always see there being a human in the loop.”

While I was personally impressed with ATLAS’ ability to crouch down and pick things up off of the floor, Carff told us that the hardest task was using the pallet jack (at 0:20). Since the pallet jack is on rollers, ATLAS couldn’t jack it up from the back, as the jack just rolls back and forth. Carff’s solution was to move the robot off to the side, and then use its foot to pin the jack down as ATLAS pumps the handle. Clever.

“It takes a lot of patience and out-of-the-box thinking to be a robot operator. When you approach a task or situation you’ve never seen before, you need to think of as many different ways of completing that task as you can and figure out what approach would be best for the robot. Many of the tasks ATLAS performs are done a lot differently than a human would do the same task.”

From the sound of things, ATLAS actually did pretty well on most of these tasks. Carff says that they only had to do at most a few takes for each task, and usually when they had to rerun something, it was a human’s fault, like a safety line that didn’t have enough slack in it, or other things like that. The worst thing that happened was that when ATLAS managed to turn on the vacuum for the first time, it blew a fuse in the building, killing all of the equipment (and cameras) and they had to run the whole thing again. Oops.

So what’s next for IHMC’s ATLAS? There’s still a lot of room for improving the control algorithms, and the only way to make sure that those algorithms are improving is to keep on trying to get ATLAS to perform all kinds of different tasks. We hear that IHMC has a bunch of good ideas for their next video. My suggestion? Have ATLAS teach that poor Valkyrie that’s hanging up at the beginning of the video how to swing dance.

[ IHMC Robotics ]

Special thanks to John Carff for speaking with us, and Doug Stephen for helping us connect with IHMC.

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