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Atlas, pictured here, is a 6-foot-2, 330-pound robot.
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Suzi Eszterhas / Minden Pictures
Robots to the Rescue
Robots like Atlas could soon take the place of human rescuers in disaster areas

By Rebecca Zissou | for Junior Scholastic

Seth Teller watches in awe as Atlas, a 6-foot-2, 330-pound robot, busts through a wall, climbs over debris, and drives an SUV through a complicated obstacle course. But Teller isn’t on the set of the latest science-fiction movie. He’s in a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Teller and his team are getting ready to compete in the final round of a robotics competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. Their task? Design a robot so it can complete a series of physical challenges, such as locating and closing a valve, hooking up a hose, and climbing an 8-foot ladder.

Sophisticated robots like Atlas will soon serve as first responders following disasters, including earthquakes and nuclear meltdowns, when it’s too risky to send in people. Eventually, robots might even be used in battle, says Teller, an engineering professor at MIT. His team is one of eight still in the running for a $2 million grand prize.

“This is something the world needs,” says Teller. “We need machines that can walk into dangerous places—places humans can’t go—and manipulate their surroundings.”

Unlike previous generations of clunky, single-task robots, these real-life transformers are being designed to move and think more like humans.

The technology isn’t far off, says Teller. Atlas and other high-tech robots could be reporting for duty in five years.

“In the future, we’re going to see these machines everywhere—in homes, workplaces, and public spaces,” he tells JS. “The things you see in movies where robots are walking around among humans
[. . .] that’s going to happen. It’s going to be a whole new world.”

This article originally appeared in the March 3, 2014 issue of Junior Scholastic magazine. To find out more about Junior Scholastic's great resources, click here.