The Evolution of Atlas, Boston Dynamics' Astonishing Humanoid Robot

By James O Malley on at

You've probably seen this video by now, showing off Atlas, a robot created by Boston Dynamics that is capable of very human-like movement. It can open doors, it can walk in the snow, it can pick up boxes. And if that isn't scary enough, the engineers at the company are pictured acting like complete dicks towards it, pushing it over and hitting it, and so on.

So when we want to pinpoint the start of the rise of the machines, this could well have been the flashpoint. Oh, Boston Dynamics is owned by Google too - so the company is well on the way to building a real life version of the Santa Claus robot from Futurama, that will both know who has been naughty and nice, and will be able to hunt you down and kill you.

More seriously, you only have to watch the video to realise what an astonishing achievement Atlas is. But just as humans did not arrive fully formed, Atlas too is the product of a slow evolution. Like many of its predecessors, Atlas was paid for by DARPA, the experimental agency in the US Department of Defence - and the goal (the publicly stated goal at least!) is to create a robot capable of search and rescue tasks.

So how did it get here? Here's some of the major steps by the company on the way to the video we saw today.


BigDog was probably the robot that first brought Boston Dynamics to the world's attention. First shown off in 2005, the robot was designed to be essentially a robot donkey - with the idea being that it could help soldiers carry stuff around in terrain which isn't well suited to traditional vehicles.

As you can see in the video, it walks just like an animal, and it can even walk on slippery ice and not fall over completely. BigDog has over 50 sensors on board, which measure pretty much everything: motion, speed, temperature, the status of all of the joints, the pressure in the engine, even the altitude the robot is walking at.

In the end though, it was sent to the knacker's yard because it was deemed to be too loud for use on the battlefield and Boston Dynamics had to create a new version. So it appears that the developers decided to put some horns on it and use it for bull fighting instead.

AlphaDog LS3

BigDog eventually evolved into the Legged Squad Support Systems (LS3) - another attempt at creating a robotic donkey. While obviously four-legged, this no doubt gave Boston Dynamics insight into the challenges posed by different types of terrain. As you can see in the video above, the prototype seems perfectly capable in both snow and desert environments. With such varied lands, it makes you wonder if the Pentagon is interested in invading Hyrule.


PETMAN, which stands for Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin was Boston Dynamics' first bipedal robot and an important step towards Atlas. The robot was invented for testing chemical suits so it is also capable of sweating, and the temperature is controlled to be like that of a human, so that suit testers can be as reassured as possible that a real human inside would be okay.

In the video above you can see PETMAN in action wearing full camouflage gear and a gas mask. We just hope there isn't really a human trapped inside.


While the robots above are surely the ones which have led most directly to the creation of Atlas, Boston Dynamics has also been hard at work at continuing to miniaturise four legs - and this miniaturisation could have aided them in the process of shrinking down Atlas to it's current version.

Spot is a smaller version of BigDog above - and is capable of climbing stairs and running alarmingly fast. They just need to perfect shape-shifting liquid-metal exteriors and we basically have a T-1000.

Atlas v1

Atlas was first shown off last year, and was much bulkier, but could still carry out the incredibly complex humanoid movement that today's Atlas can. There was just one other crucial problem: It needed to be tethered. In the video above, you can see Atlas trying to escape to freedom and a better life - while sadly tied to it's master.

The most recent redesign, which we reported on last month, has been timed to coincide with the DARPA challenge which sets teams of programmers against each other to program the best software to run on robots like Atlas.

Perhaps though the most exciting thing about Atlas wasn't actually featured in today's video. Sure, fighting wars and saving people are pretty good... but what about what we want robots to do: When are they going to do menial tasks for us? The good news is that Boston Dynamics were clearly wondering too - as to conclude, here's a video Atlas tidying up. Brilliant.