#436220 How Boston Dynamics Is Redefining Robot ...
With their jaw-dropping agility and animal-like reflexes, Boston Dynamics’ bioinspired robots have always seemed to have no equal. But that preeminence hasn’t stopped the company from pushing its technology to new heights, sometimes literally. Its latest crop of legged machines can trudge up and down hills, clamber over obstacles, and even leap into the air like a gymnast. There’s no denying their appeal: Every time Boston Dynamics uploads a new video to YouTube, it quickly racks up millions of views. These are probably the first robots you could call Internet stars.
Boston Dynamics, once owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and now by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, has long been secretive about its designs. Few publications have been granted access to its Waltham, Mass., headquarters, near Boston. But one morning this past August, IEEE Spectrum got in. We were given permission to do a unique kind of photo shoot that day. We set out to capture the company’s robots in action—running, climbing, jumping—by using high-speed cameras coupled with powerful strobes. The results you see on this page: freeze-frames of pure robotic agility.
We also used the photos to create interactive views, which you can explore online on our Robots Guide. These interactives let you spin the robots 360 degrees, or make them walk and jump on your screen.
Boston Dynamics has amassed a minizoo of robotic beasts over the years, with names like BigDog, SandFlea, and WildCat. When we visited, we focused on the two most advanced machines the company has ever built: Spot, a nimble quadruped, and Atlas, an adult-size humanoid.
Spot can navigate almost any kind of terrain while sensing its environment. Boston Dynamics recently made it available for lease, with plans to manufacture something like a thousand units per year. It envisions Spot, or even packs of them, inspecting industrial sites, carrying out hazmat missions, and delivering packages. And its YouTube fame has not gone unnoticed: Even entertainment is a possibility, with Cirque du Soleil auditioning Spot as a potential new troupe member.
“It’s really a milestone for us going from robots that work in the lab to these that are hardened for work out in the field,” Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert says in an interview.
Our other photographic subject, Atlas, is Boston Dynamics’ biggest celebrity. This 150-centimeter-tall (4-foot-11-inch-tall) humanoid is capable of impressive athletic feats. Its actuators are driven by a compact yet powerful hydraulic system that the company engineered from scratch. The unique system gives the 80-kilogram (176-pound) robot the explosive strength needed to perform acrobatic leaps and flips that don’t seem possible for such a large humanoid to do. Atlas has inspired a string of parody videos on YouTube and more than a few jokes about a robot takeover.
While Boston Dynamics excels at making robots, it has yet to prove that it can sell them. Ever since its founding in 1992 as a spin-off from MIT, the company has been an R&D-centric operation, with most of its early funding coming from U.S. military programs. The emphasis on commercialization seems to have intensified after the acquisition by SoftBank, in 2017. SoftBank’s founder and CEO, Masayoshi Son, is known to love robots—and profits.
The launch of Spot is a significant step for Boston Dynamics as it seeks to “productize” its creations. Still, Raibert says his long-term goals have remained the same: He wants to build machines that interact with the world dynamically, just as animals and humans do. Has anything changed at all? Yes, one thing, he adds with a grin. In his early career as a roboticist, he used to write papers and count his citations. Now he counts YouTube views.
This article appears in the December 2019 print issue as “By Leaps and Bounds.”
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