Move over, human first responders. Thanks to Boston Dynamics' Atlas humanoid robot, we're one step closer to responding to disasters with robots. Even better? The Atlas looks like the Terminator's less technologically advanced little brother. Here's what you need to know.

Photo: DARPA, via Wikimedia Commons. 

What it is
At 6-foot-2 and 330 pounds, the Atlas is one of the most advanced humanoid robots ever built. It's also the platform for the seven remaining teams in the ongoing Robotics Challenge at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The goal of this challenge is to have these teams build algorithms and software that allow the Atlas robot to respond to disasters.

DARPA Program Manager Dr. Gill Pratt said about the challenge:

What's going to be necessary is for the teams to give task-level commands to the robot. Things like open the door, go up the stairs, turn the handle. What that will require is for the robot itself to use [its own] perceptual processing ... to understand what it is looking at and then to use behavior controls to execute the task while watching what the effect of the task is.

The final stage of this competition isn't until December 2014. But at that time, the remaining teams have to demonstrate that their robot is capable of completing eight tasks related to a disaster scenario. Some tasks that the robot must successfully complete are shattering a concrete wall using a power tool, climbing a wobbly ladder, driving a utility vehicle, crossing a debris-littered field, replacing damaged or dated industrial equipment, and isolating and closing a valve in a leaking pipe. The team that accomplishes those feats will win DARPA's Robot Challenge and $2 million.  

Hello, SkyNet
The Atlas robot itself looks like a first-generation T-1000. I'm not kidding. It has a human-like body, complete with arms, legs, head, and torso that are linked by 28 hydraulically actuated joints. There are two swappable sets of hands, and the head has a laser range-finder and stereo sensors. Luckily, we're still a way removed from the point at which artificial intelligence can match, and then overtake, human intelligence -- but this machine definitely represents an evolution in robotics. 

Further, Atlas isn't the only robot available for disaster or wartime use. iRobot (IRBT -4.02%) makes FirstLook, a robot the military can use for situational awareness. Northrop Grumman's (NOC 1.14%) Remotec division makes Titus, a next-gen ANDROS unmanned ground vehicle, or UGV, useful to first responders and the military. And in 2007, iRobot teamed up with Boeing (BA 0.27%) to develop a next-gen, small UGV called SUGV Early, that is supposed to replace iRobot's PackBot, which is used to safely disarm improvised explosive devices. 

What this all means
There's a lot to consider about the rise of robotics, and their possible drawbacks. But, as I've written before, robots are the technology of the future. Intuitive Surgical (ISRG 0.68%) makes robots that assist with precision surgery; Rethink Robotics makes Baxter, a manufacturing robot that can work alongside humans; and now, thanks to Boston Dynamics, a first-responder robot is in the works. More importantly, as technology progresses and robots become more functional, they'll probably become as commonplace as computers -- Rodney Brooks, Rethink Robotics' CEO, has stated that that's precisely the goal. Consequently, investing in companies that specialize in robotics now could make you a pretty return in the future.