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How Boston Dynamics Is Redefining Robot Agility

An exclusive look at the world’s most dynamic robots

6 min read
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Animation of Boston Dynamics' Atlas jumping over an obstacle
Bob O'Connor

With their jaw-dropping agility and animal-like reflexes, Boston Dynamics' bioinspired robots have always seemed to have no equal. But that preeminence hasn't stopped the company from pushing its technology to new heights, sometimes literally. Its latest crop of legged machines can trudge up and down hills, clamber over obstacles, and even leap into the air like a gymnast. There's no denying their appeal: Every time Boston Dynamics uploads a new video to YouTube, it quickly racks up millions of views. These are probably the first robots you could call Internet stars.

Boston Dynamics, once owned by Google's parent company, Alphabet, and now by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, has long been secretive about its designs. Few publications have been granted access to its Waltham, Mass., headquarters, near Boston. But one morning this past August, IEEE Spectrum got in. We were given permission to do a unique kind of photo shoot that day. We set out to capture the company's robots in action—running, climbing, jumping—by using high-speed cameras coupled with powerful strobes. The results you see on this page: freeze-frames of pure robotic agility.

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A Transistor for Sound Points Toward Whole New Electronics

“Topological” acoustic transistor suggests circuits with dissipationless flow of electricity or light

3 min read
Model of a honeycomb lattice

Model of a honeycomb lattice that serves as the basis for a "transistor" of sound waves—whose design suggests new kinds of transistors of light and electricity, made from so-called topological materials. Electrons in a topological transistor, it is suspected, would flow without any resistance.

Hoffman Lab/Harvard SEAS

Potential future transistors that consume far less energy than current devices may rely on exotic materials called "topological insulators" in which electricity flows across only surfaces and edges, with virtually no dissipation of energy. In research that may help pave the way for such electronic topological transistors, scientists at Harvard have now invented and simulated the first acoustic topological transistors, which operate with sound waves instead of electrons.

Topology is the branch of mathematics that explores the nature of shapes independent of deformation. For instance, an object shaped like a doughnut can be deformed into the shape of a mug, so that the doughnut's hole becomes the hole in the cup's handle. However, the object couldn't lose the hole without changing into a fundamentally different shape.

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Taking Cosmology to the Far Side of the Moon

New Chinese program plans to use satellites in lunar orbit to study faint signals from early universe

3 min read
crescent moon
Darwin Fan/Getty Images

A team of Chinese researchers are planning to use the moon as a shield to detect otherwise hard-to-observe low frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum and open up a new window on the universe. The Discovering the Sky at the Longest Wavelengths (DSL) mission aims to seek out faint, low-frequency signals from the early cosmos using an array of 10 satellites in lunar orbit. If it launches in 2025 as planned, it will offer one of the very first glimpses of the universe through a new lens.

Nine “sister” spacecraft will make observations of the sky while passing over the far side of the moon, using our 3,474-kilometer-diameter celestial neighbor to block out human-made and other electromagnetic interference. Data collected in this radio-pristine environment will, according to researchers, be gathered by a larger mother spacecraft and transmitted to Earth when the satellites are on the near side of the moon and in view of ground stations.

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Why Multi-Functional Robots Will Take Over Commercial Robotics

Single-task robots will soon make way for multi-application robots of the future

4 min read

By integrating new functional accessories like a disinfection module to its Neo 2 floor-scrubbing robot, Avidbots is transforming it into a multi-purpose robotic platform.

Avidbots

This is a sponsored article brought to you by Avidbots.

The days of having single-purpose robots for specific tasks are behind us. A robot must be multi-functional to solve today’s challenges, be cost-effective, and increase the productivity of an organization.

Yet, most indoor autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) today are specialized, often addressing a single application, service, or market. These robots are highly effective at completing the task at hand, however, they are limited to addressing a single use case. While this approach manages development costs and complexity for the developer, it may not be in the best interest of the customer.

To set the stage for increased growth, the commercial AMR market must evolve and challenge the status quo. A focus on integrating multiple applications and processes will increase overall productivity and efficiency of AMRs.

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