The IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) kicked off yesterday here in Tokyo with a keynote by the father of BigDog.
Marc Raibert, CTO and founder of Boston Dynamics, the company famous for robots like BigDog, AlphaDog, Petman, Atlas, Cheetah, and WildCat, gave attendees a peek at some of the projects that are keeping him and his engineers busy. Raibert, wearing his customary Aloha shirt, played several videos, including some that Boston Dynamics has not made publicly available. The footage and outtakes showing the company's robots walking, running, climbing, and jumping—and, occasionally, breaking and crashing—left the robot-loving audience ecstatic.
Alas, Raibert didn't allow photography or video recording during his talk. That means we won't be able to show you clips of AlphaDog rolling down a mountain. Or WildCat's hind legs accidentally self destructing. Or Petman nearly kicking an engineer in the groin. All we can show you is the terrible picture [above] that we snuck at the beginning of the talk (Raibert is that blurry little head on the right).
Overall it was a fascinating presentation—a rare look inside a secretive company that builds some of the world's coolest robots—so we thought we would share some highlights, along with videos Raibert showed that are publicly available (and that you probably have already seen in this blog):
"This is our dream"—Raibert started things off with a video of goats climbing a steep mountain, followed by footage of parkour runners leaping and maneuvering around obstacles. "This is our dream," he said, referring to the exceptional physical abilities of the goats and runners. To get there, Raibert explained that Boston Dynamics tries to combine three key things: robot behavior, dynamic control, and machine design. "The interactions between them are as important as these things themselves," he said. "Some people think that control systems can dictate behavior, but I don't think there's any dictating at all." Machines interact with the physical world and follow the laws of physics, he explained, and instructions from a control system "are just suggestions" on how the robot should behave. The result—how the robot performs in the real world—is often unpredictable and only experiments can show what works and what doesn't. "So we always try to think about the behavior, control, and design as one integrated thing."
"Here's AlphaDog doing some bushwhacking"—BigDog originated many projects at Boston Dynamics, Raibert said, and one of them was AlphaDog (officially named LS3), a massive quadruped designed to carry heavy loads in rough terrain. While BigDog could carry 125 lbs and had a range of 12 miles, the goals for AlphaDog are a payload of 400 lbs and range of 20 miles. The company also wants to make AlphaDog quieter and more autonomous than BigDog. Raibert showed video of the robot climbing mountains in the desert and walking through a thick forest. "Here's AlphaDog doing some bushwhacking," he said. Boston Dynamics is still working to reach the project's goals; the current version can carry more than 300 lbs and has a range of 15 miles. One interesting metric Raibert discussed was the mean time to failure (MTTF) for the robot. When the project started a few years ago, the MTTF was just 0.5 hour. Now they've improved that to 3.4 hours. Raibert said that's good progress, given the robot's complexity, but he hopes they can do better.
"I have a secret to tell you"—Raibert says parents aren't supposed to have a favorite child, but as a robot maker, he does have a favorite bot! And it's not BigDog. He said WildCat, the most recent robot unveiled by Boston Dynamics, is his favorite. WildCat is the successor to the Cheetah, the world's fastest running quadruped. Cheetah was attached to a beam that kept it stable on a vertical plane. After studying Cheetah's performance on a treadmill, the engineers built WildCat, which can run freely. Among the improvements, they were able to get more power from the robot's engine and succeeded in building an integrated hydraulics structure with no exposed cables. With control coming along well, Raibert said energy density and efficiency are the biggest challenges now (he didn't give much detail but said they're using an "exotic engine"). Last week, WildCat was able to achieve 19.9 miles per hour. Working on this robot, he said, is "a huge joy."
"Are humanoids a good idea?"—Raibert talked a bit about Atlas, the hulking humanoids that Boston Dynamics built for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. He showed videos of Atlas' predecessor, Petman, and how it evolved. Originally developed to test chem-bio protective suits for soldiers, Petman can walk, run, and do squats and push-ups. Atlas will have to do even more—the list of tasks for the DRC competition includes driving a vehicle, walking on rough terrain, climbing ladders, and using power tools. For such tasks, a humanoid body makes sense. But Raibert questioned whether that is always true. One of his slides read: "Are anthropomorphic/humanoid robots a good idea?" He's not so sure. It might make sense when you're testing a chem-bio suit, which is something that humans will have to use. But for many things, Raibert said he would "rather lead with functionality and design a robot that does the function." And if it comes out with a human form, great, but if not, we shouldn't see that as a problem.
Raibert ended his talk by saying that, when he was a professor, he used to write papers and count his citations. Now, as a company person, he doesn't care about papers—what he cares about are YouTube views. He's also a fan of BigDog spoofs, and there've been many (if you don't know what these are, watch the video below). Raibert is clearly proud that BigDog has accomplished things few other robots have, and that includes capturing people's imagination and becoming an Internet sensation.
Erico Guizzo is the Director of Digital Innovation at IEEE Spectrum, and cofounder of the IEEE Robots Guide, an award-winning interactive site about robotics. He oversees the operation, integration, and new feature development for all digital properties and platforms, including the Spectrum website, newsletters, CMS, editorial workflow systems, and analytics and AI tools. An IEEE Member, he is an electrical engineer by training and has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.