Watch Boston Dynamics' bipedal robots nail this parkour obstacle course

The showcase was accompanied by a behind-the-scenes explanation of the development process for the parkour routine.
Written by Campbell Kwan, Contributor

Boston Dynamics has published a pair of videos showcasing its Atlas robots completing a complex obstacle course that requires balancing on beams and vaults.

The company's Atlas robotics program is a platform for its engineers to perform research and development on sensory and perception systems. 

In a sandbox environment, Boston Dynamics tasked two of its Atlas robots with parkouring through various obstacles.

The parkour routine entailed one of the two robots running up a series of banked plywood panels, broad jumping a gap, and running up and down a set of stairs. The second robot, meanwhile, was programmed to leap onto a balance beam and follow the same steps as the first robot but in reverse. Both robots then had to finish the routine by performing synchronised backflips.

The parkour routine can be viewed on YouTube.

When implementing these behaviours, the Atlas robots crashed a lot, Boston Dynamics said in a separate "inside the lab" video. Boston Dynamics added when running the routine repeatedly, the robots currently get the vault portion of the routine right about half of the time. On some runs, the Atlas robot loses its balance and falls backward after it jumps over the vault, it explained.    

The routine itself is a choreographed routine but what the company said makes this routine different from previous iterations is that the robots had to adapt behaviours in their repertoire based on what they saw.

"Atlas' moves are driven by perception now, and they weren't back then," Atlas team lead Scott Kuindersma explained in an accompanying blog post.

"For example, the previous floor routine and dance videos were about capturing our ability to create a variety of dynamic moves and chain them together into a routine that we could run over and over again. In that case, the robot's control system still has to make lots of critical adjustments on the fly to maintain balance and posture goals, but the robot was not sensing and reacting to its environment."

According to Boston Dynamics, this meant engineers could create a smaller number of template behaviours and did not need to pre-program jumping motions for all possible platforms.

Previously, the Atlas robots were essentially blind when performing demonstrations and could only succeed when going through obstacles in unchanged environments.

While the two robots completed the course, Boston Dynamics engineers said the design still has room for improvement as one of the robots stuttered when pumping its arm in celebration after the routine.

When performing that pumping movement, the Atlas robot stumbled a bit, Boston Dynamics said.

"We hadn't run that behaviour after the backflip before today, so that was really an experiment," Kuindersma said.

"If you watch the video closely, it looks a little awkward. We're going to swap in a behaviour we've tested before so we have some confidence it will work."

Two months ago, the robotics company was acquired by Hyundai. The South Korean conglomerate acquired an 80% controlling interest in Boston Dynamics for $1.1 billion.

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