In an homage to Apple, Boston Dynamics held a special launch event on February 2, where they launched three new features of their Spot robot. The event was well produced and provided an introduction to the capabilities of the Spot robot.
Boston Dynamics CEO, Robert Playter, kicked off the event highlighting the growth of the Spot robot over the last year and noting that the company has shipped over 400 Spot robots in 2020.
The History Of Boston Dynamics
Boston Dynamics has an interesting history. Founded in 1992 as a spin-out from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the company originally focused on improving the realism of human characters in simulation. This software was useful for defense contractors who where building military-related software simulations, and the company had several contracts from the US military.
The first robotics products: BigDog, LittleDog and a couple of multi-legged robot platforms were launched in the fall of 2005. BigDog and LittleDog are the earliest predecessors of Spot. BigDog was gasoline powered and trotted at 1500 m/s, climbed a 35 degree slope and carried a 54 kg(120 lb) payload. BigDog was originally funded by DARPA to be a “pack mule” for the infantry, able to follow a soldier into battle and carry supplies. LittleDog was a smaller form factor, battery-powered, research platform with a 30 minute runtime.
Things didn’t change much until 2013 when the company launched the Atlas robot. Atlas was the first anthropomorphic robot to feature 28 degrees of freedom. Altas was also funded through DARPA. A second generation of Atlas was announced in 2016, and this generation has evolved into one of the most competent bipedal, human sized platforms available.
Boston Dynamics became notorious for their irreverent videos that demonstrated their product capabilities by aggressively trying to topple the robots and showing how the robots could recover from the chaotic situations. Many of the videos went viral and the Boston Dynamics YouTube channel now has over 2.3M subscribers - the highest for any autonomous mobile robot vendor.
Boston Dynamics has struggled to become profitable over its 30 year history and has had three ownership changes during its lifetime. The company was first acquired by Google X in 2013 and then later sold to Softbank Group in 2017. In November 2020, Hyundai Motor company acquired majority ownership of the company in the largest robotics transaction of 2020.
What Is Spot?
Spot is the first autonomous, legged, mobile robot to be commercialized by Boston Dynamics. Spot was launched officially in the spring of 2020. Spot evolved from BigDog and is the four-legged, dog sized member of the Boston Dynamics product line. Over the last four years, the internet has watched Spot develop from a clumsy, cautious prototype into a sure footed, capable, enterprise solution.
The magic of Spot is that it can maneuver any where a human can go. Unlike wheeled AMRs, Spot can climb stairs, go up/down ramps, cross rock/debris piles and recover if it stumbles. Spot can operate both indoors and outside. The key selling point of Spot is its robustness and agility. This makes Spot an ideal platform for remote telepresence and for data gathering.
Over 40 partners are developing and selling complete solutions based on Spot. These solutions include unique sensor packages that enable Spot to gather data in areas where it is either too expensive or too dangerous for humans.
Inspection applications include: oil & gas operations; mining; construction; utilities; and rail & transportation. With this version of Spot, it is now possible to deploy Spot at a remote facility, and leave it there unattended. Facility supervisors and workers can then “teleport” into Spot and drive it around the remote facility to inspect, troubleshoot and triage incidents. In this example, Spot helps save time and money before sending humans to the remote sites to recover and/or manage a situation.
Spot Learns New Tricks
Boston Dynamics announces three new capabilities for Sot:
- Spot Enterprise
- New Scout Remote-Control Software
- The Spot Arm
Enterprise Version Of Spot
This new version of Spot enables continuous data collection in remote sites. Spot can be configured to auto-walk a predefined patrol route, while gathering data including video, sound, odors and environmental (temperature, humidity, etc). Spot also has built in dock detection to enable ongoing charging operations at docks placed throughout the facility. Spot can recharge fully within two hours.
Spot Enterprise also features upgraded hardware that supports improved safety, communications and behavior in remote environments. These features enable extended auto-walk missions. Spot Enterprise adds Ethernet to the docking station connector, so that large data sets can be quickly downloaded from Spot while it's charging. Spot Enterprise also adds enhanced WiFi onboard Spot for greater signal range while Spot is moving throughout the facility.
Scout: Web-based Software
Until now, Spot could only be operated locally via the tablet that ships with the robot, or via difficult to use remote management interfaces. The new browser-based Scout software enables remote control of a Spot unit from any connected smart phone, tablet or computer.
Scout enables the operator to use a keyboard or a third party joystick controller to easily maneuver Spot around. The new software interface provides a live video feed from Spot. With the “Touch-to-go” feature, you simply click anywhere on the image with your mouse and it will send Spot automatically to that point in the scene. Spot will auto-navigate and avoid obstacles along its path.
Operators can kick off predefined auto-walk missions, and then simply monitor Spot as it moves autonomously through the facility. The operator can intervene if an incident occurs. Spot can even self-right itself if it trips or falls over. If Spot moves out of WiFi coverage, then with auto-return, Spot will retrace its steps until it recovers the WiFi connection.
Each Spot can have only one operator at a time. However, it's super easy to share the live video and sensor feed to any other viewer with a browser and a network connection.
With the release of Scout, the deployment process has been simplified. Scout includes an on-site server box that is ready to be rack mounted into the facility's data center. Spot customers have complete control over network and data security, and all data and data communication is encrypted. Spot requires a local WiFi connection, but it does not require internet connectivity. Spot can be operated completely on a local area network.
Finally, Scout now adds a “stairs-mode” that will autodetect stairs and enable the operator to ask Spot to autonomously ascend or descend them. Stairs can also be traversed during an auto-walk mission.
Boston Dynamics is positioning Spot Enterprise as a “ready-to-deploy” and “out-of-the box” solution. Years in the making, Spot is finally ready to get a corporate job!
The Spot Arm
The Spot Arm has been featured in Spot YouTube videos for the last several years. With this launch, the company is commercializing the Spot Arm as a supported add-on feature to Spot. The six degree-of-freedom arm is mounted on the front shoulders of Spot, giving Spot the look of a giraffe.
The end effector includes an imaging depth sensor and a 4K RGB camera, that provides close up inspection capabilities. The arm is approximate 1 meter in length and is capable of lifting up to 5 kg, and can move up to 10 m/s.
The arm is able to automatically identify a door, locate the door knob and then proceed to operate the door knob and subsequently open the door. The end effector can also operate valves under the direction of the remote operator. Boston Dynamics is publishing an application programmatic interface (API) for third party developers to continue to extend the capabilities of the Spot Arm.
The Spot Arm is fully integrated to the overall system dynamics so that arm manipulation does not unbalance the robot or cause it fall over.
Boston Dynamics is finding success in remote data collection applications with its Spot robot. With this release of new features, Boston Dynamics has made Spot more capable and easier to deploy and operate. Spot is opening up applications that were impossible only a few years ago.