The ATLAS humanoid robot, which looks vaguely like something from the "Terminator" movies, was created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. It will compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), a competition that invites engineers to create a remotely controlled robot that can respond to natural or man-made disasters.
The winning robot could be used in situations deemed too dangerous for humans, like the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
The DRC is broken up into three challenges. The first was the Virtual Robotics Challenge, in which 26 teams controlled simulated, 3-D robots. Only seven of those teams - including participants from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory – were chosen to go on to the next stage. They will each get their very own ATLAS for the Robotics Challenge Trials, a real-life obstacle course competition between robots that will take place this December in Florida.
ATLAS has modular wrists so that it can swap out hands and attach third-party mitts to better handle specific tasks. The robot's head also has LiDar (light radar), a distance-sensing technology that uses lasers to map out its surroundings.
The robots will need to be able to complete tasks on their own without constant human control, which will be a key feature if they are in situations where communications are spotty. DARPA also wants the final robots to be easily controlled by people who have had minimal amounts of training, so that the technology is accessible to more people on short notice.
The teams whose robots perform the best at the trials later this year will continue to receive funding and compete in the competition's final stage in December 2014. The Robotics Challenge Finals will put the robots through a full disaster scenario that will include eight tasks each robot must complete.
In addition to improving future disaster response, winners of the 27-month competition will receive a $2 million prize.
The ATLAS robots are the result of a $10 million contract with Boston Dynamics, the Massachusetts engineering and robotics-design company. That amount covers eight robots, in-field support and any necessary maintenance.