Robots have fascinated the human mind from ages and when it comes to robots and robotics one name that stands out is Boston Dynamics. Known for creating some of the amazing and awe-inspiring legged robots, Boston Dynamics was founded in the year 1992 as an offshoot of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Over the years, it has established itself as a leader in the field of robotics engineering. The story of Boston Dynamics is filled with many twists and turns, but that’s what makes it so fascinating.
About the Founder
Boston Dynamics is the brainchild of Marc Raibert. He was born on 22 December, 1949. He went to the North Eastern University to earn a degree in electrical engineering. Raibert then went to MIT to pursue a Ph.D, which he completed in 1977. A few years later, he was working in NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory.
But he left that job in 1980 to become an Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the Department of Computer Science and Robotics. In 1986, he joined MIT as a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and was sticking to that job before founding Boston Dynamics.
While working at MIT, Marc Raibert founded the Leg Lab, a laboratory fully dedicated to doing research for developing highly dynamic legged robots. Originally, Raibert founded the Leg Lab in the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), but later he moved it to MIT.
The idea of Boston dynamics took shape from this Leg Lab. In the year 1992, he founded Boston Dynamics, a Simulation and Robotics company as an offshoot of MIT Leg Lab. Today, it has become synonymous with advanced dynamic robotics.
Over the years, the company has created robots like Atlas, BigDog, SpotMini, and Handle, all inspired by the agility and dexterity associated with animal movements. Although Boston Dynamics took more than a decade to develop its first robot, there has been no looking back since then.
The Early Years
Headquartered in Waltham, Boston Dynamics became famous when it developed BigDog, a quadruped robot for the US military. The company received funding from DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Agency) for the project. It also developed DI-Guy, a software for realistic human simulation during its early years.
In the subsequent years, it worked with the American Systems Corporation under a contract received from the NAWCTSD (Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division). With the American Systems Corporation, it worked to substitute naval training videos with interactive 3D computer simulations which feature DI-Guy characters.
During its early years, Boston Dynamics mainly worked for DARPA and the Pentagon. It received funding in the form of research grants, mostly from DARPA. During its association with DARPA, the company focused mainly on research directed towards developing robots for military applications. During this period, it became a pioneer in developing robots that can work in the real-world environments and traverse difficult terrains.
Acquisition by Google
In 2013, Boston Dynamics was acquired by Alphabet, the parent company of Google for an undisclosed amount, along with 8 other robotic companies. Before the acquisition, Google was in the news for its plan to make a robotic division. Thus the 9 robotic companies became a part of Replicant, the new Robotic Division of Google headed by Andy Rubin, the co-founder of Android.
Challenges Following the Acquisition
Following the acquisition, the 9 robotic companies including Boston dynamics were allowed to go on with their research under Andy Rubin. But in October 2014, i.e., within a year of forming the Robotic Division, Andy Rubin Left Google leaving behind a leadership vacuum in Replicant.
Many employees felt an uncertainty regarding the robotics projects to be pursued by Google following the departure of Andy Rubin. In January 2015, the co-founder of Replicant, James Kuffner also left the company.
Nobody knows what exactly Google wanted to do with its robotics division. It was speculated by many in the industry that Google wanted to develop an easy-to-use and affordable commercial robot. But Boston Dynamics was not much interested in developing such products.
So, the visions of both the companies differed significantly. Moreover, the Alphabet Executives had realized that Boston Dynamics was not going to generate much revenue soon. In November 2015, Jonathan Rosenberg, who was heading Replicant said, “We as a startup of our size cannot spend 30-plus percent of our resources on things that take ten years.”
So, it was quite evident that Alphabet had been trying to curtail its investments on ambitious research projects. As a result, both the companies could not reconcile their interests which finally led to their parting of ways.
Acquisition by SoftBank
The news that Google is willing to sell Boston Dynamics had been doing the rounds since March 2016. There were a lot of speculations regarding the potential buyers. Finally, in June 2017, SoftBank, the Japanese telecommunications and technology company bought the robotic firm from Alphabet for an undisclosed amount.
Both companies seemed quite positive about the acquisition. After the acquisition, Masayoshi Son, Chairman & CEO of SoftBank Group Corp., said, “Smart robotics is going to be a key driver of the next stage of the Information Revolution, and Marc and his team at Boston Dynamics are the clear technology leaders in advanced dynamic robots.”
He further added, “I am thrilled to welcome them to the SoftBank family and look forward to supporting them as they continue to advance the field of robotics and explore applications that can help make life easier, safer, and more fulfilling.”
The CEO of Boston Dynamics, Marc Raibert also expressed his elation in the following words, “We at Boston Dynamics are excited to be part of SoftBank’s bold vision and its position creating the next technology revolution, and we share SoftBank’s belief that advances in technology should be for the benefit of humanity. We look forward to working with SoftBank in our mission to push the boundaries of what advanced robots can do and to create useful applications in a smarter and more connected world.”
An Overview of Boston Dynamics’ Robots
In 2015, BigDog was developed by Boston Dynamics in association with Foster-Miller, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Harvard University Concord Field Station. Built specifically for DARPA, the robot can carry up to 340 lbs, traverse in difficult terrains, and run at 4 miles per hour.
BigDog was actually designed to work as a pack mule for US military in terrains where conventional vehicles cannot be used for transportation. However, the project had to be put off as the robot was too loud to be deployed during combat.
LS3 (Legged Squad Support System), also known as Alpha Dog is another contract received from DARPA. The robot was designed to follow marines in rough terrains while carrying their loads. Equipped with a stereo vision system integrated alongside a light detecting and ranging (LIDAR) component, AlphaDog can follow its leader wherever he or she goes.
It can go to the designated locations using its GPS, obstacle avoidance, and terrain sensing. Apart from their own team of engineers, Boston Dynamics roped in engineers and scientists from Carnegie Mellon, AAI Corporation, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Bell Helicopter, and Woodward HRT in order to build LS3.
In September 2012, two prototypes of LS3 were subjected to an outdoor test. In December 2012, the LS3 was put to another test, where it walked through the woods in Fort Pickett, Virginia under voice commands from a human controller. Finally, in July 2014, it was used by Marines during an exercise.
Though the improvements in LS3 impressed many, the project was put into cold storage mainly for certain limitations like loud noise and the difficulties in repairing the system in case it breaks. After that, no upgrades or experiments were scheduled for improvising the robot.
Cheetah and WildCat
Yet another robot developed by Boston Dynamics with the funding received from DARPA. Cheetah is a four-legged robot known to sprint at a speed of 28.3 mph, faster than Usain Bolt. The original cheetah powered by an off-board hydraulic pump runs on a high-speed treadmill in the laboratory.
In 2013, Boston Dynamics developed a free-running version of cheetah and named it WildCat. At present, WildCat is the fastest four-legged robot that can run at the speed of 32 km/h without losing its balance. It runs with a galloping gait resembling that of a horse or dog.
PETMAN (Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin)
It is the humanoid robot unveiled in 2009. It was specifically developed to test special suits used by the US Army to protect themselves from chemical warfare agents. The mechanical design and walking algorithm used for developing PETMAN were similar to those used for BigDog.
Unlike other chemical protection suit testers, this anthropomorphic robot can walk, bend, maintain balance even when pushed, and do a variety of actions just like humans. Though it was developed in 2009, its first footage was released in 2011. This humanoid robot is expected to be used for testing the next generation of hazmat suits.
Unveiled in 2013, Atlas is another anthropomorphic robot that is based on both PETMAN and BigDog. It can walk over a wide range of terrains as its control system coordinates the movements of its various parts. Stereo vision and range sensors enable it to navigate, avoid obstacles on its path, and manipulate objects in the environment.
In the video released in 2016, the 5′ 9″ tall Atlas can be seen walking over uneven terrains. Even when pushed or knocked down, the robot can be seen getting up and regaining its composure. In another video released in 2017, the robot is shown jumping and doing backflips better than most of us. The funding, as well as the design and production of Atlas, were supervised by DARPA.
SpotMini is a rather small quadruped electric robot that can operate for about 90 minutes on a single charge. It is the quietest robot manufactured by Boston dynamics till date. In the videos released by the company, the latest version of SpotMini can be seen doing a range of activities like climbing stairs with incredible grace and running around an office by navigating the entire course on its own.
In February 2018, the robot was seen opening a door using its claw, while in another video, it was opening a door despite human resistance. It can pick up and handle objects, and the cameras fitted into the robot enable it to navigate and avoid obstacles on its path. In May 2018, Marc Raibert announced the plan to start commercial production of SpotMini in 2019.
While wheels work well on flat or even surfaces, legs can traverse almost any terrain, and Boston Dynamics has combined the advantages of both wheels and legs in Handle. So, Handle is a robot designed to gain from the best of both worlds.
Handle is a much less complex robot that works on the same principles for dynamics, balance, and mobile manipulation that can be found in the two-legged and four-legged robots developed by Boston Dynamics. Handle is a 6.5 ft tall research robot that can travel at the speed of 9 mph and jump 4 feet vertically.
What Lies in the Future
With their incredible robots, Boston Dynamics has never failed to thrill and amaze their audience. But until now, they have not been able to generate any revenue. None of their products hit the market, as most of these were designed for military use. Financially, they were depending on research grants from DARPA and other government agencies before Google acquired the company in 2013.
Even under Google, no commercial production of robots took place. So, at the time of acquisition by SoftBank, nobody knew what exactly Boston Dynamics would be doing under its new owner. However, the Japanese tech giant is known for its growing interests in robotics.
With the global market for robotics predicted to reach $87 billion by 2025, the market potential for robots is really huge. Considering several acquisitions made by SoftBank in the last couple of years, the company is expected to concentrate more on AI, robotics, and the Internet of Things. For example, SoftBank acquired the Aldebaran Robotics in 2012, which built the interactive and emotionally intelligent robot, Pepper.
Pepper can perceive and respond to human emotions, and entertain people by playing songs and dancing around. It can also work at stores. In fact, more than 140 SoftBank mobile stores in Japan have been using this robot to welcome, inform, and entertain their customers.
The Food and Beverage giant Nestle is also planning to use Pepper in about 1,000 Nescafe outlets in Japan. In June 2015, SoftBank announced its plan to set up a joint venture with Alibaba and Foxconn Technology to sell Pepper across the world.
So, it seems that the Japanese tech giant has big plans on robotics, especially on humanoid robots, the domain in which Boston dynamics is a big player. Though Boston Dynamics has not produced any commercial robot so far, it is reportedly preparing to launch dog-like SpotMini by next year.
The new SpotMini is likely to be used as a security guard. But Marc Raibert is hopeful that other possible uses of SpotMini might be explored by other companies. The company has already developed 10 SpotMini robots and is planning to manufacture 100 more for testing. If everything goes as expected, then SpotMini will go into mass production by the middle of the next year.
So, finally, Boston Dynamics’ robot is going to make a debut in the market. Over the last 25 years, the company has been continuously scaling up its efforts to redefine what robots can do by overcoming all challenges that came on its way.
Only time will tell how far the products of Boston Dynamics succeed in earning revenues them. We can only wish that the robots like their videos will impress the potential buyers, secure a distinct place in the market, and also continue to amaze us with their incredible capabilities.
Boston Dynamics Robots Evolution Video
Video Credit: Boston Dynamics & YouTube