I can't help but think that most of the humanoid form robots floating around are and will for quite some time be more technology show cases than actual production hardware. The human form is pretty decent for a wide variety of uses, but a log more efficiency can be gained by tailoring the form for specific applications.
The Form of Atlas is humanoid because DARPA has a key design assumption that human form will remain the primary design accommodation for vehicles and controls in technological environments.
This design assumption will continue until vehicles are fully automatic and humans are removed from technology control loops -- which could take either a civilization collapse -- or sudden technological disruption of current human labor political relationships through instantaneous quantum internet services.
(Humor) In its current form, Atlas could run for Congress and the Office of the President, human offices where Artificial Intelligence is not yet required.
(Humor) Atlas could takeover Jay Leno's desk without any problems and still receive incredibly high ratings for Comcast Universal NBC. AND, it wouldn't need sick time, vacation breaks, a wife, a cat, 47 different cars, or an annoying talent agent and manager. Atlas would cost peanuts for the Tonight Show to operate and it could be available 24 hours a day to support worldwide broadcast operations on the Internet in all major languages.
The fact that Atlas is still on a power tether suggests that DARPA does not have confidence in independent operations yet - beyond the test labs - since Boston Robotics has produced tetherless prototypes for projects which provide in-the-field troop support and reconnaisance.
It really isn't that hard to provide Atlas with mobile power if it was intended to be a field-ready automaton - instead of a simple test bed for autonomic bi-pedal movement and stabilization controls.
As to more appropriate robot forms for disaster response and rescue: CONSIDER THE ELEPHANT
For independent operations and ability to run on Natural Green Power, DARPA should consider issuing a Robotic Elephant Challenge, to deliver a robot which has the power and agility to not only dodge a wrecking ball - but tolerate a direct strike from a wrecking ball - AND then pick it up and throw it back.
Then again, perhaps the US Army should just consider developing an Elephant Cavalry Brigade to complement the honor guard Horse Cavalry Regiments.
Elephants have the advantage of long-distance infrasound reconnaisance and networking - and an innate ability to learn different human languages.
And, elephants use green power, consuming a minimum of 250 kg of fiber a day to generate methane gas and high value fertilizer. With instruction and management, elephants can quickly repopulate and manage forests with preferred hardwood tree crops - while selecting against invasive softwoods and weeds which only create dangerous wildfire fuels.
They can also be lawn mowers and hedge trimmers - though the boredom alone could make them irritable.
Enhanced with mobile electronics, powered by capacitive-generation fabrics, a mobile elephant platform could supply disaster response teams with needed strength, wireless networking, and intelligence to effectively extract survivors trapped in building wreckage.
The elephant's infrasound detection and imaging capability alone could help rescue teams make faster selections of survivors over dead body recovery sites.
And, there is the legendary discriminatory sense of smell which elephants have which makes them ideal for detecting dangerous gas leaks, something Atlas can not do at this time.
Given the increased risk of building damage due to the higher frequency of tornadoes and severe hurricanes, elephants and their human managers should be on every disaster response team procurement list, especially in areas with high water flooding risks.
To be blunt, there should be herds of elephants in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, being trained and readied for emergency disaster response by the National Guard Reserves.
True, if DARPA were to issue a Robotic Elephant challenge, a one-on-one competition may still recommend the Real Elephant for practicality, maintenance economics, and general sociability.
Besides - Real Elephants are more fun, given their sense of humor, though herd ethics training will be required: Elephant teasing can be very infectious.
As always, consider the alternatives, while we still have Elephants!
With all due respect to the designers of such a technical wonder, I wonder how much the sci-fi aspect led the design compared with the functionality it would need for use in disasters. If it's sci-fi, I'd rather have it look like a frightening bug that can scale debris easily and use multiple arms for real rescue. In the absence of that, I agree with Janine that a washing machine would be a better alternative to this collectible-toy-like model.
Science fiction certainly inspired this, though persuing some of these lofty goals can give us tangential gains. While researching how to properly leverage weight at the end of the arms to mantain balance, they probably learned a lot about sensor setup, programming, and even hardware. Those improvements will find themselves used in more practical projects in the future. I find it easiest to think of many of these projects along the same lines as a concept car.
I agree with Caleb: these robot are learning tools, like concept cars. The engineers aren't thinking world domination yet. But then again, we do have drones flying around doing some serious damage to people. So some of scariest sci-fi nightmares are becoming reality. We wouldn't have those without engineers.
Someday all these robots in a museum. But in the meantime, I think they should strap the robot to a jet pack to test the jet pack for human use. But that's another discussion.
I'm more than a little concerned. I would think that if robots were to be used for helpful assistance to humans, they shouldn't look like they're moving in and taking over.
Now that the teams are tasked with dropping in the brains and handing them back to the Pentagon, it's even more disconcerting.
Agree. If the think operated under its own power it would be much more impressive. But that would require some serious engineering and a lot of power, I imagine. I think in some sci-fi stories, robots like this are powered by their own internal nuclear reactor. That's another thing I would consider scary. Vey scary.
Nuclear reactor? With anything approaching the current state of the art, that would be way too bulky for such a device, I think. Just the shielding required would make such a contraption impractical. Same with "atomic cars" that were predicted back in the 1950s. Not likely.
Something more along the lines of fuel cells, perhaps?
Yes Bert, of course. I was kind of being tongue and cheek there. I could swear I've seen a sci-fi movie where the robots had internal nuclear reactors that powered them. But I can't think of it and google has been no help. Maybe I made it up. In that case, maybe I should write the movie. :)
The quadroped called "big dog" made by boston dynamics has a gasoline fueled power house on board. I don't think power will really be the issue. Even other bipedal and fairly swift machines like the latest version of Asimo are able to carry a power pack and have been for several years.
The biggest hurdles are complexity of real time adjustment to environmental variables. When a piece of rubble rolls from under its foot, how does it react? If it encounters a drastic change in terrain, and ultimately a failure, can it recover? These are the problems they are really trying to solve.
I could see the robot being used to instill fear into an oncoming army --- those little go-kart robots just look cute an unthreatening, which can be deceptive. But I don't really get the humanoid form factor either. We are not the most graceful critters on the planet, and I suspect a lower center of gravity along with a third leg or wheels would be beneficial.
For example, Tom, how easy would it be for a wheeled robot to climb a cliff or a climb a tree? Not likely. Or to swim?
Or put it another way. If you think of a propeller as being a wheel evolved for moving in water, then how effective would the propeller be on dry land?
Like anything else in engineering, designs are always a tradeoff. It seems to me that going for the humanoid, or mammal-like, or just large-animal-like, form factor, will most likely reap the best rewards in terms of flexibility of use.
Bert: You're right that this hunk of metal could climb trees better than my car, but a car with arm could probably climb it even better and move more efficiently on land. Let's face it, they made it look like something from Lost Planet as a marketing gimmick. It just doesn't make a lot of sense compared to other forms. If they had to go with human, couldn't they have made it more like an agile athlete?
That's exactly it--it is a marketing ploy. But, who are they marketing to? You an market the concept of fun, function, or even fear. If the functional aspect of this robot isn't high given its form factor for the type of jobs it is said to be made for, what is being marketed, and again to whom? Me, I still think that there is a frightening aspect to this robot. Why? As Tom points out, making it look like an agile atlete would make sense--and not cause further trauma to those humans it may someday be trying to save.
Let's face it: robots are fun. They've fascinated all of us going back to Jules Verne. They inspire and they amuse. Carolyn asked what is DARPA marketing here? I think it is marketing DARPA with a message of: "Look, we're a fun bunch! Join us!" That message would be harder to sell (to most young engineers) with a lethal image like a smart bomb.
The Pentagon's mechanical man here doesn't make much sense, except as a marketing ploy. Do you agree/disagree?
" ... but a car with arm could probably climb it even better and move more efficiently on land."
Could it? A car with just one arm would have a heck of a time climbing a tree, with all that useless weight of wheels dragging it down. Honestly, think about it. If wheels were better or more flexible, for motion on this planet, why wouldn't nature have evolved that way in any species?
So, take this "car" and give it the four appendages all of the larger animals seem to have, instead of wheels, and what's the difference with this robot?
Even if many can't see past the "gimmick" aspect, it's hard to deny that making a machine with this form factor, one that operates well, is going to make a very flexible machine indeed. Way better than a wheeled vehicle, unless all you care about is top speed on smooth terrain. In the video, they did show it avoiding obstacles and adjusting for variable terrain underfoot, so it's not like they don't understand what's involved here.
I dunno. I think the wheel was invented as an improvement over lugging stuff around on two legs. I'm not saying robots shouldn't have arms. I just think a lower center of gravity and a better traction system would be more effective than a machine that is built in the image of his creator (how vain was that?)
Well, but the roads had to be invented too. So how useful is a robot, which might potentially be used in rescue operations, if it's optimized for smooth roads?
Wheels evolved from logs, used to move heavy objects along relatively smooth surfaces. But mules had to be used to move similarly heavy objects on difficult terrain. That's my point. Smooth roads didn't come with this planet, we had to invent them.
In fact, man makes his creations in his own image. Cars have two headlights, a nose, and these four wheels, the only practical alternative to arms and legs. I see this robot as an evolution of our creation. :)
Bert: You're making good points. I don't disagree. My quibble isn't with the idea of wheels vs legs, really, but with a top-heavy form factor that just happens to look like a bipod human/ape. If we wanted a strong, agile animal form, why not a cheetah or bear? But more to the point, why not a lower center of gravity? Those are the things that make me think the inventors were creating a marketing machine more than the most efficient robot.
Aha. So, why did we evolve into upright creatures? My answer would be, because it allows us to manipulate things with our arms and hands, even while we use our legs to move. We don't HAVE to dedicate all four appendages to motion, although of course we can. Other animals, those who aren't so flexible, like cats and dogs, need to use their mouths for things that we and other primates can do with our hands.
But our center of mass can easily be lowered all the way down to the ground, if we crawl low to the ground like soldiers do in training sometimes. Or what about rock climbing? The center of mass gets as close to the cliff as possible, and typically your arms and legs are used just for motion and traction.
Ditto for a robot of this form factor. No need to assume it can only operate by standing upright. If the robot were to be more like a bear, could you have it use its front paws as effectively and flexibly as we can use our arms?
Well Bert, I like your spunk! But I don't think we can settle this without a good old fashioned robot fight. Or maybe we should have them compete in a decathlon -- yeah, I'd like to see that!
Until then, I'm gonna stick with my theory that the Pentagon built this very traditional humanoid-style robot for show. Otherwise, I think we'd see it disarming bombs and hunting bad guys in Afghanistan, where the military relies on low-slung, wheeled contraptions for actual field ops. Or we'd see it on Mars, where the Rovers have done a marvelous job of crossing difficult terrain.
But maybe I'll go car shopping this weekend and see if there's a model that will carry me in its arms while trotting along at 80 mph. It would certainly be easier to park if my car could climb trees. ;-)
"Doesn't it seem that a human form might not be the best one to rescue people? Why wouldn't it look more like a Mars rover? Two legs seem like a much weaker proposal than a half-man, half-tank version. What do you think?"
The proof is in the pudding. I think that nature did not evolve animals with forelegs and hindlegs for no good reason. These appendages seem to be far better at negotiating just about any type of terrain than are wheels or tank treads. Even if they are probably not the best for maximum speed (due to the needed reciprocating motion, which wastes energy at high rates of speed compared with wheels).
And it also seems that the larger animals do not have a huge number of appendages, as some insects do.
There's no doubt also the fact that man likes to create creatures in his own image, as many have stated, but I really think that ultimately there's a darned good reason why the larger land animals look like they (and we) do.
This is impressive although I would really like to see arms and hands that can manipulate small objects with touch feedback - say to fix a watch, or replace a screen on an iphone.
I agree the humanoid form is mostly for show as a snake would be much nicer for many jobs, although as has been rehashed many times over in movies and Science Fiction books - people like to look at people and would probably be creeped out dealing with other life forms although I am sure we would get used to it.
Power is important, but I think they are far away from needing a large energy pack although there are many other industries that can use one. I still have not seen any promising technologies with power density that would be practical for a robot, or much better than our current lithium products. Even nuclear would need to vent tremedous amounts of heat - I guess the robot cold have a large hat as a cooling tower... ;)
The robot is shaped in that form because for the tasks that it would be doing that is the most efficient shape. Also, developing the process of achieving the goals is bound to be simpler if those writing the code and developing the moves can imagine a humanly possible set of moves. A different platform would require re-thinking and then arriving from a different point of view.. So the real reason is efficiency in process development. Sorry about the dissillusionment, folks.
Isn't the next step too obvious? Haven't you seen the transformers? The ideal robot would be a transformer. One which can transform from humanoid form to vehicle form to go at high speeds, reach it's objective, rescue the people and retrieve them to a safer spot. again in it's vehicle form. with a rescue bed and everything for the illed. Wow... cool!
The author makes the comment regarding uses for this robot of "think Fukushima". However, the robot is operated by electronics. They would not last long in a highly radioactive location such as Fukushima. It would be nice to be able to use it for something like that instead of exposing people to the radiation, but not very practical.