Why We’re Now Sharing Our Trails with Robots
The video of a recent hiking encounter offers a glimpse into the future for outdoor enthusiasts, and it's a little creepy
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
No, it’s not the trailer for a new Will Smith movie. The video that surfaced earlier this month showing a humanoid robot hiking through the woods with an eight-person entourage in tow is completely—if a bit unnervingly—real.
Even robots, it seems, can benefit from hitting the trail. But the 5-foot-9-inch, 180-pound Atlas robot, developed by Waltham, Massachusetts–based Boston Dynamics, wasn’t just enjoying the fresh air. “We’re interested in getting this robot out into the world,” said Marc Raibert, co-founder of Boston Dynamics, in a company video posted on YouTube. “Out in the world is just a totally different challenge than in the lab. You can’t predict what it’s going to be like.”
Atlas is well suited to the outdoors, using laser-powered LIDAR technology in its head to assess and navigate terrain and sensors and hydraulics in its legs and body for balance. In another company video that has received nearly 18 million YouTube views since February, Atlas traverses a snow-covered forest, occasionally slipping but regaining its footing with ease.
Who might want a robot with the skill set of the average day hiker? The military, for one. Boston Dynamics, which Google acquired in 2013, has nabbed millions of dollars in government contracts in recent years, peaking at more than $34 million from the Department of Defense in 2012. In addition to Atlas, the military has funded other Boston Dynamics robots, including BigDog, a four-legged, load-carrying creature built for rough terrain that doubles as robot-man’s equally disturbing best friend.
Maybe we’ve seen too many sci-fi films, but after watching Atlas march down the trail, imagining it as the robot soldier of the future is not a huge leap. “We’re making pretty good progress on making it so it has mobility that’s sort of within shooting range of yours,” Raibert said. “I’m not saying it can do everything you can do, but you can imagine if we keep pushing, we’ll get there.”