Boston Dynamics' SpotMini Is All Electric, Agile, and Has a Capable Face-Arm

A fun-sized version of Spot is the most domesticated Boston Dynamics robot we've seen

3 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

Boston Dynamics SpotMini quadruped robot
Image: Boston Dynamics via YouTube

Boston Dynamics has done it again: in a YouTube video posted today, one of the coolest robotics companies in the known universe is introducing a fun-sizeified version of their Spot quadruped called SpotMini. SpotMini is all electric, quiet, comes with a very capable googley-eyed face-arm, and is terrible at bringing people beer. We want one anyway.

SpotMini is a new smaller version of the Spot robot, weighing 55 lbs dripping wet (65 lbs if you include its arm.) SpotMini is all-electric (no hydraulics) and runs for about 90 minutes on a charge, depending on what it is doing. SpotMini is one of the quietest robots we have ever built. It has a variety of sensors, including depth cameras, a solid state gyro (IMU) and proprioception sensors in the limbs. These sensors help with navigation and mobile manipulation. SpotMini performs some tasks autonomously, but often uses a human for high-level guidance.

Some stuff I noticed from the video, in no particular order:

  • The video description suggests that SpotMini is waterproof. Amazing!
  • Sounds like Boston Dynamics is making the transition away from hydraulics, at least for applications that don’t require a lot of strength. Still hard to beat hydraulics for power (and liquid fuel for energy density), but SpotMini is just a little guy and doesn’t need it.
  • Despite the sensing systems on the robot (more on those in a sec) and the description, I would guess that most of the video is not autonomous, in that a human is teleoperating it. The self-righting (very neat trick with the arm, by the way) could be an autonomous behavior, and I’m wondering whether the stuff with the dishes is scripted or done manually. I’d be impressed if there was autonomy going on there, considering how fast and smooth it was and the fact that it’s picking up a transparent glass. But hey, it’s BD, so anything’s possible. 
  • It looks like there are several different versions of SpotMini, and at least two separate robots. It’s hard to tell if the one at the slick-looking white one at the end is fundamentally different underneath, or just wearing pants, although it also appears to be missing the front sensing system and safety cages.
  • My guess is that the rectangular box on its back is a battery pack.
  • The SpotMini in the video has, depending on what clip you’re looking at, a MultiSense S7 looking forward, some other camera-based forward-looking vision system that I can’t immediately identify, a butt-mounted Velodyne VLP-16, and what might be a small camera in the face-arm’s mouth.
  • The continuity in the video is weird. For example, based on the sensor loadout and arm, the robot that slips on the banana peels and then turns toward the stairs is configured differently than the robot that actually walks up the stairs. No idea why, but probably just that they shot different parts of the video on different days. Or it’s a vast conspiracy.
  • I don’t know what that thing on SpotMini’s head is when it walks under Spot. Pretty sure it’s not a real Velodyne HDL-32, but it could be a mockup to test clearances, I guess. Maybe I’m just imagining things, but it looks like someone painted eyes on it?
  • Nobody gave SpotMini a boot to the ribs? I’m so disappointed!
  • Whatever that dude is having for lunch, I don’t want any.

Lastly, and this is worth more than a bullet point, it’s veeerrry interesting that Boston Dynamics has all of these home environments tagged with fiducials set up to test robots in. Previously, we’ve seen stairs and treadmills and debris piles and the occasional snake pit, but nothing to suggest that BD was ever even thinking about one of their robots doing anything in a house. And now suddenly we’re looking at a kitchen full of dishes, a living room, a dining room, furniture, carpeting, the works.

A few months ago, leaked minutes of a meeting at Google suggested that its robotics group “had been trying to work with Boston Dynamics to create a low-cost electric quadruped robot,” and that Google was insisting on products that “generate real revenue.” I don’t know exactly what the development cycle on SpotMini was, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re looking at an attempt to make a (relatively) affordable robot that can do practical things for people who aren’t in the military.

I don’t want to read too much into all this, but considering all the rumors that have been going around about Boston Dynamics and Google, I’m just glad that BD is still doing what they’re best at: making amazing robots in secret, shooting cool videos, posting them on YouTube with zero warning, and then sitting back and watching the views roll in.

As always, we’ve reached out to Boston Dynamics for more details. Every once in a while, they actually get back to us, and if they do, we’ll update this post.

[ Boston Dynamics ]

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