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Atlas humanoid robot takes wobbly steps over obstacles

The term "humanoid robot" might call up memories of "Terminator," but the bipedal Atlas robot doesn't seem quite that threatening in this video, which has it gingerly picking its way across a path strewn with detritus.

The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition put up the video last week to show how even without using its sophisticated sensors, which the researchers disabled, the robot could make its way across reasonably rough terrain.

DARPA
DARPA hopes robots will eventually be able to take on dangerous tasks like entering irradiated areas.

IHMC is modifying the Atlas, originally built by Boston Dynamics (of BigDog fame), to compete in DARPA's Robotics Challenge. DARPA, the research arm of the Defense Department, is offering a $2 million prize to the best-performing robot in a series of tests made to simulate "disaster response operations." IHMC took first place in a virtual version of the challenge performed in June, and was awarded an Atlas robot to use for the next phase, a trial run of the real-world tasks due to take place in December.

Naturally, being able to navigate broken terrain is a major consideration for a robot working in a disaster area, but the task is especially hard for bipedal robots like Atlas. If it can't avoid objects like the planks and rope in the video, it must be able to go over them without falling.

It doesn't quite accomplish that, and at the moment the Atlas falls "often" when traversing such obstacles. The attachment above prevents it from falling and damaging itself, though the rope doesn't actually support any of the robot's weight.

The first real Robotics Challenge trials will be held at Homestead Speedway in Florida on Dec. 20th and 21st. It's open to the public and free to attend, so local robotics enthusiasts can come and see a few state-of-the-art robots trying to drive, operate machinery and get across rough terrain. More information on the event will appear here as DARPA makes it available.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.