Boston Dynamics’ Raibert Wows Crowds at TechCrunch Event

The SpotMini demonstration at the TechCrunch Robotics & AI Sessions drew big crowds. Image: John Waters.

May 01, 2019      
John K. Waters

Robotics star power was in abundance at last month’s Robotics + AI TechCrunch Sessions event, but one star might have shined a little brighter – Marc Raibert of Boston Dynamics.

After his conference-closing onstage interview, crowds of fans cornered the founder and CEO, as well as the mass of attendees laughing and applauding the courtyard demonstration of the company’s latest four-legged SpotMini robot.

Boston Dynamics is one of the world’s best-known robot makers, thanks in no small part to YouTube. The 2015 video of the company’s Spot quadrupedal robot walking around an office, being kicked without losing its footing, climbing stairs and hills of rough terrain, and jogging beside a human runner has garnered more than 20 million views. The 2018 video of its Atlas humanoid robot jumping over a log and running over a stepped series of boxes without breaking its pace has garnered more than 7 million views.

Its recent SpotMini videos are well on their way to beating those numbers. A clip published in April of a group of SpotMinis harnessed like dogsled dogs, and pulling a truck, made worldwide headlines (see above). The 2018 clip of the robot “dancing” to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” is also not to be missed.

But the company isn’t just building robots to create viral videos. A video of its new Handle wheel-legged robots stacking and unstacking boxes in a warehouse, also shown at the TechCrunch event, has nearly 3 million views.

The Handle is the closest thing the historically R&D-only company has come to creating a purpose-built robot, Raibert told a packed auditorium. It was built, he explained, specifically as a logistics robot.

“[W]e’ve been interested in making a wheel-legged combination for a long time,” he said, “and never had quite the right sponsor for it. But about two years ago, we just decided we were going to do it, and we built the Handle, which was partly Atlas parts and partly new, [and included a set of] legs with the wheels. And once we got it going, we started being interested in the logistics opportunity, and we redesigned the whole thing with this particular task in mind — that is, moving boxes, stacking them in pallets, and de-stacking them from pallets.

Boston Dynamics Handle robot

Boston Dynamics’ Handle is a wheel-legged robot that can load and unload boxes from pallets. Source: Boston Dynamics

“There’s just a huge amount of this kind of work going on around the world,” Raibert continued. We estimate there are about a trillion cubic [feet of] boxes moved around the world every year. And most of it’s not automated. So there’s really a huge opportunity there. Of course, this robot is great for us because it includes the DNA of a balancing robot, and moving dynamically and having counterweights that let it reach a long way. So it’s not different, 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.”

TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heater, who conducted the interview, asked about the company’s first major acquisition, Silicon Valley startup Kinema Systems, which makes a vision system Boston Dynamics is going to include in the Handle. That company’s Kinema Pick software deals with one of the big challenges of industrial robotics: random picking.

Raibert described that system as “an extraordinary, 3D, deep-learning-based vision system that we are actively working on porting to Handle.” The company plans to adapt the vision system “wherever it fits with all of our robots,” he added, “because it’s really remarkable.”

Spot, SpotMini more general purpose

The Handle was purpose-built for a specific application in a specific market, but the company’s most famous robot, the Spot, and its little brother, the SpotMini, were conceived as general-purpose machines, Raibert said. The Spot was developed for both indoor and outdoor applications; the SpotMini was designed for homes and offices, and comes with an articulated are for picking up objects. It runs for about 90 minutes per charge, depending on what it’s doing. Its sensor suite includes stereo cameras, depth cameras, an internal measurement unit (IMU), and position/force sensors in the limbs.

Raibert said his company sees the Spot as a platform. “[W]e’ve designed it to have versatility, so people can customize it,” he said, “… and add mechanical components. And there’s an API, so you can add your own software.” The Spot is currently being tested by the Massachusetts State Police for use in “hostile situations” and bomb scares, he said.

Another application, which Raibert explained during a video, involves sending a SpotMini outfitted with a 360-degree camera to walk a construction site and gather information much like the cars employed in Google’s Street View. More than a dozen construction companies are currently testing this application of the robot.

Raibert said commercial production of the SpotMini robots should begin sometime this summer. “They’re coming off the assembly line now,” he said, “but they’re all betas, and we’re using them for testing and doing a lot of redesign. The real production should start in July.”

Raibert wrapped his presentation with an onstage demo of the latest version of the SpotMini and its new arm, which he explained coordinates with the body, so the motion of the base contributes to the motion of the arm. He also demonstrated what he called “chicken-head mode,” which fixes the “hand” at the end of the arm in space, even as the body moves and contorts into different positions. The robot can be remotely driven, as it was during the demo, but it also comes with autonomous navigation software, Raibert said.

“Eventually you guys will all be writing apps that interact with the controls on the robot,” he told the crowd, for applications such as law enforcement and oil rig applications in which the users want to drive the device. “We want it to be the Android of robots.”