Sleek metal robots, highly trained in the deadly arts of unarmed combat -- it sounds like the stuff of nightmares. So why is Boston Dynamics, a robotics company acquired last December by Google, working to teach karate to “Ian,” one of its humanoid Atlas robots? After all, if the movies are to be believed, Ian will inevitably turn against its trainers, dispatching them in a flurry of mechanized karate chops.
Fortunately for humanity, Ian has a long way to go before he poses a threat to any human in hand-to-hand combat. The robot is able to balance on one leg on a stack of cinder blocks, raising and lowering its arms and free leg in a rough imitation of Daniel-san’s famous crane stance from the climactic scene of “The Karate Kid.”
In contrast to Daniel, Ian moves slowly, almost clumsily, as it struggles to balance its 6-foot-2-inch, 330-pound body. At this point, asking a robot to pull off a jumping kick, like the one that wins Daniel the match, is out of the question for such a large robot. But the lessons Boston Dynamics has been learning while programming Ian to perform these moves might have applications in the fields of search-and-rescue and firefighting, where robots could someday replace humans in dangerous situations.
Atlas is Boston Dynamics’ flagship robot, built for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge Trials event. Last year, an Atlas model was able to walk over piles of cinderblocks and up ramps without losing its balance. Now, the company is working on a nimbler version of Atlas -- an improved 2.0 model that will have a high-capacity battery in place of a bulky external power cord.
Ian, the Atlas model that performed the Crane Kick, has 28 hydraulic actuators to give it flexibility and balance, as well as cameras and a laser range finder in its head for visual input. In addition to traversing unsteady terrain, Atlas robots can also grasp tools and perform delicate work thanks to their relatively deft hands. In addition to the humanoid Atlas, Boston Dynamics also makes BigDog, a four-legged robot that can carry heavy loads over rough terrain, and Sand Flea, a small wheeled robot that can jump 30 feet in the air to clear walls or other obstacles.
If Ian’s performance is the high water mark for robot karate, it’s safe to say that humans won’t be bested by robots in hand-to-hand combat anytime soon. But robots may soon be able to pull us from burning buildings or out from under rubble after a natural disaster, and even carry us to safety, if companies like Boston Dynamics are able to continue to improve their robots’ strength and coordination.