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The Atlas humanoid robot, unveiled last year by Boston Dynamics, a company later acquired by Google, is a marvel. It can clamber over rubble and operate power tools. But these abilities don’t come cheap. Atlas has a price tag well above a million dollars, and it consumes around 15 kilowatts of electricity when in operation, meaning hefty power bills for its owner and limiting its practicality. “That’s enough to power a small city block,” says Alexander Kernbaum, research engineer at the nonprofit research agency SRI International. To be truly practical, he says, Atlas “needs to be many times more efficient.”

Kernbaum is part of a team at SRI that recently began working on that problem under a contract with DARPA, the Pentagon research agency (Atlas itself was built with DARPA funding). The team aims to rethink the robot’s design to preserve its capabilities but slash its power usage by at least 20 times, putting it on par with a microwave oven.

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