Hyundai Buys Boston Dynamics for Nearly $1 Billion. Now What?

Boston Dynamics contemplates its future as it gets swallowed (again) by a giant corporation

9 min read
Atlas robot getting up
Boston Dynamics, once owned by Google's parent company, Alphabet, and then by Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, now belongs to South Korean carmaker Hyundai.
Photo: Bob O'Connor

This morning just after 3 a.m. ET, Boston Dynamics sent out a media release confirming that Hyundai Motor Group has acquired a controlling interest in the company that values Boston Dynamics at US $1.1 billion:

Under the agreement, Hyundai Motor Group will hold an approximately 80 percent stake in Boston Dynamics and SoftBank, through one of its affiliates, will retain an approximately 20 percent stake in Boston Dynamics after the closing of the transaction.

The release is very long, but does have some interesting bits—we'll go through them, and talk about what this might mean for both Boston Dynamics and Hyundai.

We've asked Boston Dynamics for comment, but they've been unusually quiet for the last few days (I wonder why!). So at this point just keep in mind that the only things we know for sure are the ones in the release. If (when?) we hear anything from either Boston Dynamics or Hyundai, we'll update this post.

The first thing to be clear on is that the acquisition is split between Hyundai Motor Group's affiliates, including Hyundai Motor, Hyundai Mobis, and Hyundai Glovis. Hyundai Motor makes cars, Hyundai Mobis makes car parts and seems to be doing some autonomous stuff as well, and Hyundai Glovis does logistics. There are many other groups that share the Hyundai name, but they're separate entities, at least on paper. For example, there's a Hyundai Robotics, but that's part of Hyundai Heavy Industries, a different company than Hyundai Motor Group. But for this article, when we say “Hyundai," we're talking about Hyundai Motor Group.

What's in it for Hyundai?

Let's get into the press release, which is filled with press release-y terms like “synergies" and “working together"—you can view the whole thing here—but still has some parts that convey useful info.

By establishing a leading presence in the field of robotics, the acquisition will mark another major step for Hyundai Motor Group toward its strategic transformation into a Smart Mobility Solution Provider. To propel this transformation, Hyundai Motor Group has invested substantially in development of future technologies, including in fields such as autonomous driving technology, connectivity, eco-friendly vehicles, smart factories, advanced materials, artificial intelligence (AI), and robots.

If Hyundai wants to be a “Smart Mobility Solution Provider" with a focus on vehicles, it really seems like there's a whole bunch of other ways they could have spent most of a billion dollars that would get them there quicker. Will Boston Dynamics' expertise help them develop autonomous driving technology? Sure, I guess, but why not just buy an autonomous car startup instead? Boston Dynamics is more about “robots," which happens to be dead last on the list above.

There was some speculation a couple of weeks ago that Hyundai was going to try and leverage Boston Dynamics to make a real version of this hybrid wheeled/legged concept car, so if that's what Hyundai means by “Smart Mobility Solution Provider," then I suppose the Boston Dynamics acquisition makes more sense. Still, I think that's unlikely, because it's just a concept car, after all.

In addition to “smart mobility," which seems like a longer-term goal for Hyundai, the company also mentions other, more immediate benefits from the acquisition:

Advanced robotics offer opportunities for rapid growth with the potential to positively impact society in multiple ways. Boston Dynamics is the established leader in developing agile, mobile robots that have been successfully integrated into various business operations. The deal is also expected to allow Hyundai Motor Group and Boston Dynamics to leverage each other's respective strengths in manufacturing, logistics, construction and automation.

“Successfully integrated" might be a little optimistic here. They're talking about Spot, of course, but I think the best you could say at this point is that Spot is in the middle of some promising pilot projects. Whether it'll be successfully integrated in the sense that it'll have long-term commercial usefulness and value remains to be seen. I'm optimistic about this as well, but Spot is definitely not there yet.

What does probably hold a lot of value for Hyundai is getting Spot, Pick, and perhaps even Handle into that “manufacturing, logistics, construction" stuff. This is the bread and butter for robots right now, and Boston Dynamics has plenty of valuable technology to offer in those spaces.

Spot robot Boston Dynamics is selling Spot for $74,500, shipping included. Photo: Bob O'Connor

Betting on Spot and Pick

With Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert's transition to Chairman of the company, the CEO position is now occupied by Robert Playter, the long-time VP of engineering and more recently COO at Boston Dynamics. Here's his statement from the release:

“Boston Dynamics' commercial business has grown rapidly as we've brought to market the first robot that can automate repetitive and dangerous tasks in workplaces designed for human-level mobility. We and Hyundai share a view of the transformational power of mobility and look forward to working together to accelerate our plans to enable the world with cutting edge automation, and to continue to solve the world's hardest robotics challenges for our customers."

Whether Spot is in fact “the first robot that can automate repetitive and dangerous tasks in workplaces designed for human-level mobility" on the market is perhaps something that could be argued against, although I won't. Whether or not it was the first robot that can do these kinds of things, it's definitely not the only robot that do these kinds of things, and going forward, it's going to be increasingly challenging for Spot to maintain its uniqueness.

For a long time, Boston Dynamics totally owned the quadruped space. Now, they're one company among many—ANYbotics and Unitree are just two examples of other quadrupeds that are being successfully commercialized. Spot is certainly very capable and easy to use, and we shouldn't underestimate the effort required to create a robot as complex as Spot that can be commercially used and supported. But it's not clear how long they'll maintain that advantage, with much more affordable platforms coming out of Asia, and other companies offering some unique new capabilities.

Boston Dynamics' Handle robot Boston Dynamics' Handle is an all-electric robot featuring a leg-wheel hybrid mobility system, a manipulator arm with a vacuum gripper, and a counterbalancing tail. Photo: Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics' picking system, which stemmed from their 2019 acquisition of Kinema Systems, faces the same kinds of challenges—it's very good, but it's not totally unique.

Boston Dynamics produces highly capable mobile robots with advanced mobility, dexterity and intelligence, enabling automation in difficult, dangerous, or unstructured environments. The company launched sales of its first commercial robot, Spot in June of 2020 and has since sold hundreds of robots in a variety of industries, such as power utilities, construction, manufacturing, oil and gas, and mining. Boston Dynamics plans to expand the Spot product line early next year with an enterprise version of the robot with greater levels of autonomy and remote inspection capabilities, and the release of a robotic arm, which will be a breakthrough in mobile manipulation.
Boston Dynamics is also entering the logistics automation market with the industry leading Pick, a computer vision-based depalletizing solution, and will introduce a mobile robot for warehouses in 2021.

Huh. We'll be trying to figure out what “greater levels of autonomy" means, as well as whether the “mobile robot for warehouses" is Handle, or something more like an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) platform. I'd honestly be surprised if Handle was ready for work outside of Boston Dynamics next year, and it's hard to imagine how Boston Dynamics could leverage their expertise into the AMR space with something that wouldn't just seem… Dull, compared to what they usually do. I hope to be surprised, though!

A new deep-pocketed benefactor

Hyundai Motor Group's decision to acquire Boston Dynamics is based on its growth potential and wide range of capabilities.

“Wide range of capabilities" we get, but that other phrase, “growth potential," has a heck of a lot wrapped up in it. At the moment, Boston Dynamics is nowhere near profitable, as far as we know. SoftBank acquired Boston Dynamics in 2017 for between one hundred and two hundred million, and over the last three years they've poured hundreds of millions more into Boston Dynamics.

Hyundai's 80 percent stake just means that they'll need to take over the majority of that support, and perhaps even increase it if Boston Dynamics' growth is one of their primary goals. Hyundai can't have a reasonable expectation that Boston Dynamics will be profitable any time soon; they're selling Spots now, but it's an open question whether Spot will manage to find a scalable niche in which it'll be useful in the sort of volume that will make it a sustainable commercial success. And even if it does become a success, it seems unlikely that Spot by itself will make a significant dent in Boston Dynamics' burn rate anytime soon. Boston Dynamics will have more products of course, but it's going to take a while, and Hyundai will need to support them in the interim.

Depending on whether Hyundai views Boston Dynamics as a company that does research or a company that makes robots that are useful and profitable, it may be difficult for Boston Dynamics to justify the cost to develop the

It's become clear that to sustain itself, Boston Dynamics needs a benefactor with very deep pockets and a long time horizon. Initially, Boston Dynamics' business model (or whatever you want to call it) was to do bespoke projects for defense-ish folks like DARPA, but from what we understand Boston Dynamics stopped that sort of work after Google acquired them back in 2013. From one perspective, that government funding did exactly what it was supposed to do, which was to fund the development of legged robots through low TRLs (technology readiness levels) to the point where they could start to explore commercialization.

The question now, though, is whether Hyundai is willing to let Boston Dynamics undertake the kinds of low-TRL, high-risk projects that led from BigDog to LS3 to Spot, and from PETMAN to DRC Atlas to the current Atlas. So will Hyundai be cool about the whole thing and be the sort of benefactor that's willing to give Boston Dynamics the resources that they need to keep doing what they're doing, without having to answer too many awkward questions about things like practicality and profitability? Hyundai can certainly afford to do this, but so could SoftBank, and Google—the question is whether Hyundai will want to, over the length of time that's required for the development of the kind of ultra-sophisticated robotics hardware that Boston Dynamics specializes in.

To put it another way: Depending whether Hyundai's perspective on Boston Dynamics is as a company that does research or a company that makes robots that are useful and profitable, it may be difficult for Boston Dynamics to justify the cost to develop the next Atlas, when the current one still seems so far from commercialization.

Google, SoftBank, now Hyundai

Boston Dynamics possesses multiple key technologies for high-performance robots equipped with perception, navigation, and intelligence.
Hyundai Motor Group's AI and Human Robot Interaction (HRI) expertise is highly synergistic with Boston Dynamics's 3D vision, manipulation, and bipedal/quadruped expertise.

As it turns out, Hyundai Motors does have its own robotics lab, called Hyundai Motors Robotics Lab. Their website is not all that great, but here's a video from last year:

I'm not entirely clear on what Hyundai means when they use the word “synergistic" when they talk about their robotics lab and Boston Dynamics, but it's a little bit concerning. Usually, when a big company buys a little company that specializes in something that the big company is interested in, the idea is that the little company, to some extent, will be absorbed into the big company to give them some expertise in that area. Historically, however, Boston Dynamics has been highly resistant to this, maintaining its post-acquisition independence and appearing to be very reluctant to do anything besides what it wants to do, at whatever pace it wants to do it, and as by itself as possible.

From what we understand, Boston Dynamics didn't integrate particularly well with Google's robotics push in 2013, and we haven't seen much evidence that SoftBank's experience was much different. The most direct benefit to SoftBank (or at least the most visible one) was the addition of a fleet of Spot robots to the SoftBank Hawks baseball team cheerleading squad, along with a single (that we know about) choreographed gymnastics routine from an Atlas robot that was only shown on video.

And honestly, if you were a big manufacturing company with a bunch of money and you wanted to build up your own robotics program quickly, you'd probably have much better luck picking up some smaller robotics companies who were a bit less individualistic and would probably be more amenable to integration and would cost way less than a billion dollars-ish. And if integration is ultimately Hyundai's goal, we'll be very sad, because it'll likely signal the end of Boston Dynamics doing the unfettered crazy stuff that we've grown to love.

Atlas robot jumping Possibly the most agile humanoid robot ever built, Atlas can run, climb, jump over obstacles, and even get up after a fall. Photo: Bob O'Connor

Boston Dynamics contemplates its future

The release ends by saying that the transaction is “subject to regulatory approvals and other customary closing conditions" and “is expected to close by June of 2021." Again, you can read the whole thing here.

My initial reaction is that, despite the “synergies" described by Hyundai, it's certainly not immediately obvious why the company wants to own 80 percent of Boston Dynamics. I'd also like a better understanding of how they arrived at the $1.1 billion valuation. I'm not saying this because I don't believe in what Boston Dynamics is doing or in the inherent value of the company, because I absolutely do, albeit perhaps in a slightly less tangible sense. But when you start tossing around numbers like these, a big pile of expectations inevitably comes along with them. I hope that Boston Dynamics is unique enough that the kinds of rules that normally apply to robotics companies (or companies in general) can be set aside, at least somewhat, but I also worry that what made Boston Dynamics great was the explicit funding for the kinds of radical ideas that eventually resulted in robots like Atlas and Spot.

Can Hyundai continue giving Boston Dynamics the support and freedom that they need to keep doing the kinds of things that have made them legendary? I certainly hope so.

The Conversation (0)

How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less