The “public” robotics (as opposed to the private world of practical industrial robots) is split into two factions. One promotes electric puppets who supposedly have humanlike “minds” and do art or otherwise replace humans. The second faction tries to build robotic bodies that can actually function in the real world. The public tends to confuse or think that a humanlike mind is needed to drive an agile robot, but that’s not the case. Instead, it’s perfectly possible to create a “mindless” robot that functions efficiently in its environment.
For whatever reason, Boston Dynamics has taken the second track for many years. They demonstrated doglike and mulelike robots as “pack animals” (sadly, the need for a gasoline engine to provide enough power doomed these devices to irrelevancy). More recently, BD has done a lot of PR using its ‘Atlas’ robot – basically the descendant of the DARPA Atlas with benefits.
In the video embedded above, Atlas is showing with improved agility. It is actually doing a bit of tumbling, which is truly remarkabe. While it still looks “mechanical” it is clearly an emulation of humanoid motion. A true Robot that Jumps!
The one problem, just like the “Big Dog” and related robots – power. The size and weight of this robot imply massive electrical consumption. BD hasn’t given up on having electric stepper-motor-like motion, which means that when Atlas cancels its motion after a move, it uses a lot of power. A human might use 150 watts doing brisk exercise; my guess is that Atlas is using 50 times less power.
This wouldn’t be a problem except that the Iron Man “power cell” doesn’t exist. All we have are lithium batteries, which even at their most efficient, could not move this body for more than a few minutes. That’s a huge problem. In the pack-bots, BD used gasoline engines, since fossil fuel has 50 times the energy density of a lithium battery. And future battery tech, while likely to get better, might at best double, and even that with exotic tech like molten salt. Not 50x.
I wish BD or someone who knows would doe an accurate estimate of the power consumption of the Atlas body in vigorous exercise, and then ‘scale’ up or down to see if there is a point where you wouldn’t have to recharge every few minutes. My guess is that very small might be more viable (like the robo-insects) but big battle-bot is out, unless you use nuclear power. In fact, old images of robots by Hans Moravec in places like Scientific American routinely showed nuclear power supplies.
Practical? If not, at least BD has a steady PR stream feeding on the “hopium” of tech-utopians…