Why do robots need to do backflips?

Bipedal humanoid robot Atlas can jump, do a backflip and stick the landing.

Created by US robotics company Boston Dynamics, a video of the two-legged humanoid performing impressive athletic feats — for a robot — recently went viral.

Measuring 150 centimetres tall and weighing in at 75 kilograms, Atlas is able to coordinate the function of a torso, arms and legs to achieve a whole body manipulation.

Unlike other bipedal robots which seem clumsy and unable to even walk, Atlas has the ability to balance, along with a high strength-to-weight ratio and a complex range of sensors and stereo vision — meaning more complex actions are achievable.

GIF: Even for a robot not every landing sticks.

We expect robots to take over our homes and roads — but why would they ever need to do a backflip?

According to CSIRO Robotics Research Group senior engineer Ryan Steindl, there is no specific acrobatic requirement.

Still, the fact Boston Dynamic’s team set itself this challenge means other, more basic movements can become a lot easier to achieve.

“This is a common thing in robotics: tackle the very hard problem and the easier tasks — like just walking around and moving in our environment — get a lot easier,” he said.

“Like what the moon race did for space. Get there, and now we can get to orbit easily. It’s routine.”

Queensland University of Technology robotics lecturer Dr Chris Lehnert said the ability to achieve explosive energy in undertaking the flip and then stabilising the landing was significant.

The robot’s blooper reel also matters.

“The failures — when it lands and doesn’t land appropriately, it puts a foot out to stabilise itself — show it’s robust in different scenarios,” Dr Lehnert said.

GIF: Robot fails from the DARPA Robotics Challenge

But do we even need humanoid robots with legs?

Mr Steindl, who works on legged robotics, said they are necessary for activities on unstructured terrain or in human environments.

“Where roads and the right infrastructure exists, wheels are fine,” he explained.

“But when it comes to the outdoors or walking where a human would walk, or going into the bush or anywhere extreme, wheels can be quite prohibitive.”

Dr Lehnert said Atlas shows an ability to traverse difficult terrain.

“Previous humanoids have really struggled in real-world environments,” he said.

“Being able to walk upstairs, or at least run, has been very difficult.”

Not all robots with legs need only two

Boston Dynamics have designed a number of other robots to perform specific tasks, including Sand Flea, a robot with four wheels that can jump to a height of 10 metres.

Big Dog, a large robot with limbs akin to an animal’s legs, is built to travel across rugged terrain, including mud, snow and water — albeit not very gracefully.

GIF: Big Dog created by Boston Dynamics tackling some tricky terrain

Meanwhile, Mr Steindl and his team are working on their own many-legged robot, called Multilegged Autonomous eXplorer, or MAX.

The robot is tall (2.25 metres), light (60 kilograms) and flexible.

The aim is for MAX to autonomously explore an unstructured area, like the Amazon, and undertake an ecological survey.

“We are targeting walking as our means of transport, so we are really targeting rough terrain — like big boulders, big slopes — and being able to carry a science payload over a long period of time,” he said.

Ultimately, Atlas’s flipping feat is an impressive combination of weight management, power and computation — all with a metallic barrel chest and two spindly legs.

“To have it all happen that fast is the impressive part,” Mr Steindl said.

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