2019: the Year of Legged Robots
2019 will be the year of commercial class legged robots. That was the message delivered by Agility Robotics and Boston Dynamics during their respective opening and closing keynotes at the inaugural Robotics Summit & Showcase, produced by The Robot Report and WTWH Media May 23-24 in Boston.
Agility Robotics CEO and co-founder Damion Shelton updated attendees on its Cassie bipedal robot. Boston Dynamics co-founder and CEO Marc Raibert quickly discussed the wheel-leg hybrid robot Handle, which he said we’ll hear more about in 2019 with a real application, while focusing more on the Atlas bipedal and SpotMini quadruped robots. Raibert conducted a live demo of SpotMini where the robot traversed a small obstacle and picked up a soda can and handed it to Raibert.
Neither company has ever claimed legged robots are a fit for every application. “If we evolved with wheels, I’m sure our environments would be good for wheels, too,” Shelton said. Raibert and Shelton both described potential applications for their robots, including construction, delivery, disaster relief and surveillance, but the availability of commercial class legged robot platforms to build upon will lead to innovative ideas.
Cassie is gearing up for its second production run in July 2018, while SpotMini is in pre-production preparing for commercial availability in 2019. SpotMini will be the first robot Boston Dynamics commercialized in its 26-year history.
Raibert would not disclose the price of SpotMini, but he said the latest prototype costs 10 times less to build than the iteration before it. Boston Dynamics is working with contract manufacturers to build 100 SpotMinis over the next year, then it hopes to build 1,000 each year going forward.
Agility Robotics recently raised $8 million in Series A funding led by Playground Global, which was founded by Android co-creator and ex-Google robotics head Andy Rubin. The company is hiring mechanical, electrical, and controls engineers at its Oregon headquarters. It’s also adding employees for perception, business development and apps engineering at a facility in Pittsburgh.
Legged robots have long been challenging and expensive. The prices are finally coming down, but challenges such as agility, control laws, emergency stop, power consumption and stability will persist. Getting these platforms out into the masses is the only way to expedite their development. The Dynamic Legged Locomotion Lab at the University of Michigan, for example, recently had Cassie riding a Segway to test custom controls. The University of British Columbia used deep reinforcement learning in simulation to test feedback control. Shelton said Agility Robotics is just starting to explore how deep learning can help bipeds.
SpotMini will be sold as a hardware and software platform, Raibert said. The robot is flat on top with mounting plates for companies to hook into. SpotMini has a network connection and API so third-party software can talk with its software to develop apps. Boston Dynamics is building its own apps, including a surveillance package, that it’ll use as reference designs going forward. There’s an optional manipulator arm sold separately.
Skeptics have often wondered what has taken Boston Dynamics so long to commercialize a robot. And it appears the company’s mentality has changed since the Softbank acquisition in 2017. As Raibert said at the Robotics Summit, Boston Dynamics’ long-term goal has been solving “the hard problems in robotics, leading to major new functionality.” Its new goal is developing products for real-world applications.
Raibert admitted it’s challenging to balance both the short- and long-term goals simultaneously. But he isn’t shy about asking for help. “I hope half of you quit your jobs and come join us,” Raibert said jokingly to the audience. “Because we’re hiring.”
Steve Crowe • Editor