Last year at our TC Sessions: Robotics event, Boston Dynamics announced its intention to commercialize SpotMini. It was an enormous stride for the secretive company. After a quarter of century building some of the world’s most sophisticated robots, it was finally taking a stride into the commercial territory, making the quadrupedal android available to anyone with the need and financial resources for the machine.
CEO Marc Raibert made a return impression at our event this week to discuss the progress Boston Dynamics has made in the intervening 12 months, both with regard to SpotMini and the company’s broader intentions to take a more market-based come to a number of its creations.
The impression came hot on the heels of a key acquisition for the company. In fact, Kinema was the first major acquisition in the company’s history — no doubt helped along by the very deep coffers of its parent company, SoftBank. The claim Area-based startup’s imaging technology forms a key element to Boston Dynamics’ revamped model of its wheeled android hand. With a newfound model system and its dual arms replaced with a multi-suction cupped gripper.
a recent video from the company demonstrated the efficiency and speed with which the system can be deployed to move boxes from shelf to conveyor belt. As Raibert noted onstage, Handle is the closest Boston Dynamics has come to a “purpose-built android” — i.e. an android designed from the ground up to perform an exact task. It marks a brand-new focus for a company that, after its earliest days of DARPA-funded projects, appears to primarily be driven by the desire to create the world’s most sophisticated robots.
“We estimate that there’s about a trillion cubic foot boxes moved around the world every year,” says Raibert. “And most of it’s not automated. There’s really a big opportunity there. And of course this android is impressive for us, because it includes the DNA of a balancing android and moving dynamically and having counterweights that let it come a long route. So it’s not disparate, in some respects, from the robots we’ve been building for years. On the other hand, some of it is very focused on grasping, being able to see boxes and do tasks like stack them neatly together.”
The company will maintain a foot on that side of things, as well. Robots like the humanoid Atlas will still form an important piece of its work, even when no commercial applications are immediately apparent.
But once again, it was SpotMini who was the real star of the show. This moment, however, the company debuted the model of the android that will go into production. At first glance, the android looked remarkably similar to the model we had onstage last year.
“We’ve we’ve redesigned many of the elements to make it more reliable, to make the skins work acceptable and to preserve it if it does plummet,” says Raibert. “It has two sets [of cameras] on the front, and one on each side and one on the back. So we can see in all directions.”
I had have the opportunity to pilot the android — making me one of a relatively tiny faction of people outside of the Boston Dynamics offices who’ve had the opportunity to do so. While SpotMini has all of the necessary technology for autonomous movement, user command is feasible and preferred in certain situations (some of which we’ll get to shortly).
[Gifs featured are sped up a bit from genuine video above]
The controller is an oemed design that looks something like a xbox controller with an elongated touchscreen in the middle. The android can be controlled directly with the touchscreen, but I opted for a pair of joysticks. Moving Spot around is a lot like piloting a drone. One joystick moves the android forward and back, the other turns it left and right.
Like a drone, it takes some getting used to, particularly with regard to the orientation of the android. One direction is always forward for the android, but not necessarily for the pilot. Tapping a button on the screen switches the joystick functionality to the arm (or “neck,” depending on your perspective). This can be moved around like a quality robotic arm/grasper. The grasper can also be held stationary, while the rest of the android moves around it in a kind of shimmying fashion.
Once you get the hang of it, it’s actually beautiful easy. In fact, my mother, whose video game experience peaked out at Tetris, was backstage at the event and happily took the controller from Boston Dynamics, controlling the android with small issue.
Boston Dynamics is peeling back the curtain more than ever. During our conversation, Raibert debuted behind the scenes footage of element testing. It’s a sight to behold, with various pieces of the android splayed out on lab bench. It’s a side of Boston Dynamics we’ve not really seen before. Ditto for the images of enormous Spot Mini testing corrals, where several are patrolling around autonomously.
Boston Dynamics also has a few more ideas of what the future could look like for the android. Raibert shared footage of Massachusetts State policeman utilizing spot in disparate testing scenarios, where the android’s ability to open doors could potentially get human being officers out of destruction’s route during a hostage or terrorist situation.
Another unit was programmed to autonomously patrol a building site in Tokyo, outfitted with a road View-style 360 camera, so it can monitor building progress. “This lets the building company get an assessment of progress at their site,” he explains. “You might think that that’s a low end task. But these companies have thousands of sites. And they have to patrol them at least a couple of times a week to know where they are in progress. And they’re anticipating using Spot for that. So we have over a dozen building companies lined up to do tests at various steps of testing and proof of idea in their scenarios.”
Raibert says the Spot Mini is still on track for a july release. The company plans to manufacture around 100 in its initial run, though it’s still not prepared to talk about pricing.