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Spot Is Boston Dynamics' Nimble New Quadruped Robot

Boston Dynamics introduces a new quadruped that's quieter and more agile than LS3

3 min read
Spot Is Boston Dynamics' Nimble New Quadruped Robot
Spot, go fetch!
Image: Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics is infuriatingly cool. They have to be the only robotics company out there that can just post a YouTube video of an incredibly agile autonomous quadruped named “Spot” with a four sentence description, and that’s that—no info on their site, no press release, no interviews. Because they know that everybody is going to watch it and think it’s awesome anyway. Grr.

Spot is a four-legged robot designed for indoor and outdoor operation. It is electrically powered and hydraulically actuated. Spot has a sensor head that helps it navigate and negotiate rough terrain. Spot weighs about 160 lbs.

We’ve pinged our contacts at Boston Dynamics for more details, but until we hear back from them (and now that they belong to Google, we’ll probably hear from them, like, never—UPDATE 02/11/15: Boston Dynamics got back to us, so, yeah, that was sooner than “never”), let’s see what we can figure out from the video. Again, none of this comes from Boston Dynamics—it’s just us talking about what looks new here.

  • Instead of a swarm of angry bees, Spot sounds like a bad day at the dentist. It’s still hydraulic, but it’s using a battery to power the hydraulic pump instead of a gas engine. We’d be surprised if this didn’t have a significant impact on the range, endurance, and/or performance (especially payload capacity) of Spot relative to some of their other robots. However, they managed to make the most recent update of Atlas run on batteries that also power a pump, so maybe Spot is leveraging the same technology. (UPDATE: Boston Dynamics confirmed that “Spot’s power system shares some elements from the new Atlas power system.”)
  • Spot doesn’t necessarily look like it’s built specifically for speed or payload capacity, suggesting that it’s not the next generation of either LS3 or Wildcat. We’ve heard that the legs on these robots can be placed with their knees facing either backwards or forwards, but it’s (maybe) worth pointing out that Wildcat has forward facing knees (Cheetah does too), and LS3 has a mix. If I had to guess based on nothing at all, I might speculate that the LS3 leg configuration is for payload, and the Wildcat leg configuration is for speed. So maybe Spot’s legs are designed for agility? Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all. I honestly don't know.
  • Spot certainly is agile: it seems to have no problem with hills, or even stairs. I sort of think that Spot maybe doesn’t really know how to go up stairs. Like, it doesn’t care that there are stairs there, it just sees a steep and bumpy slope, and then goes up stairs like it would any other terrain. You know, they call themselves Boston Dynamics for a reason.
  • As far as sensors go, the baby Velodyne is certainly obvious. Also tucked away where Spot’s head would be (if it had a head) looks like the same sort of vision sensors that Atlas has, but it’s a bit hard to see. The Velodyne isn’t mounted in a way that it can see what’s immediately in front of the robot, so for autonomous operation, it’ll need to rely on something else for close-in sensing. The robot’s adaptability is a huge asset here, though: since it’s so dynamically stable, it doesn't need to calculate exact foot placement in advance, it can just go.

The big question that we have now (besides all of the other big questions about how this machine works and what it can do) is why does this robot exist? As in, what was it built for? Back when Boston Dynamics was primarily working for the military, it was easier to discuss potential applications, but now that the company is part of Google, maybe the reason is just “because we can, and it’s cool.”

Or maybe this is an urban delivery robot. You heard it here first, folks.

In any case, we’re very glad to see that Boston Dynamics is still making awesome robots and hasn’t completely disappeared into the Google void.

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

“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.

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

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.

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