Clever? Creepy? Or perhaps a healthy dose of
both? American robotics company Boston Dynamics has just
released a video demonstrating the latest abilities of its
Atlas humanoid robot. In the clip, Atlas can be seen jogging,
up an incline and on uneven ground, and jumping over a log, all
for the purpose search and rescue.
Just days after posting, Atlas is already trending on YouTube,
having accrued almost 6 million views. It has also been
receiving mixed reviews, some concerned about its applications
in defense, others remarking on just how lifelike it is.
Despite the feeling for this extremely realistic robot, Atlas
is undeniably a feat of modern engineering, in many parts
enabled by 3D printing.
The making of a running, jumping, back-flipping
Atlas made its first public appearance in July 2013. Then a
DARPA prototype, Atlas had the abilities of the average
toddler, just learning to walk.
The latest generation of Atlas, no capable of walking, running,
picking itself up from a fall and performing back-flips, is 5.9
feet tall, and weighs 330 pounds (150 kg).
To be expected, the legs responsible for Atlas’ convincing
agility have been cited as one of the most challenging parts of
its development. Each leg is actuated by hydraulic power,
internal integration of multiple channels and actuator
cylinders into a single part – a task that has been
overcome with the use of 3D printing.
The Boston Dynamics
Atlas. Screengrab via Boston Dynamics
3D printing challenges
Speaking at the recent 11th
International Fluid Power Conference in Aachen,
Germany, Boston Dynamics VP of Engineering Aaron Saunders
explained, “The leg was very challenging because there
was a lot of stuff integrated into it. Just finding a company
to hone an actuator cylinder in a 3D printed material that had
never been qualified before is a massive challenge.”
In addition, Boston Dynamics applied 3D printing to the
production of the Atlas’ Hydraulic Power Unit (HPU) that sits
in the center of the robot. Though the method came with
its own set of challenges, in the end, the advantages
outweighed the effort that had to be taken to get the right
“It’s approaching a kilowatt per kg of density, it’s pretty
scalable,” said Saunders of the HPU, “All the homeostasis,
sensing, filtration, dump valves, everything we need for the
power plant is integrated into a printed part.”
In addition, 3D printing made components lighter, with higher
weight-strength ratio, and designs were made to occupy unused
space within the robot.
Structure of the Atlas’
legs. Image via Boston Dynamics
A robot reality
Soft robotics is another area of innovation applying 3D
printing to give machines more life-like abilities. The US
Military is currently running a soft robotic study
inspired by cephalopods and, recent
research Harvard University has proven the ability
to make soft robots
capable of sensing movement, pressure, touch, and
The success of these projects and companies like Boston
Dynamics is building a promising future for realistic robots.
Eventually, such machines may be crucial to relief efforts in
sites of disaster. They are also have the potential to change
the face of defense.
Atlas performs a back-flip. Clip via Boston
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Featured image shows the Atlas robot jumping over a log.
Clip via Boston Dynamics.