What Boston Dynamics Is Working on Next

Spot gets a face-arm, and ATLAS goes jogging outside

3 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

What Boston Dynamics Is Working on Next

It’s almost impossible to get information out of Boston Dynamics (especially after this happened). Infuriatingly (for us), the way the company does PR is to just upload awesome videos on YouTube, sit back, and let millions of people be amazed by their newest robotic innovation while we desperately try to get a post up that says something more relevant than “go watch this video right now.” We even showed up at Boston Dynamics ourselves once, and mostly all that we learned was that Marc Raibert is an enigmatic guy on a pogo stick.

Raibert, and other people from Boston Dynamics, do speak at conferences sometimes, but usually they don’t talk much about future projects, and they almost always ask that anything new (or any outtakes that they might show, which are unfailingly hilarious) isn’t recorded.

Earlier this month, at the FAB 11 Conference at MIT, Raibert gave a 7-minute presentation as part of a panel on “Making Robots,” which also included Sangbae KimRuss TedrakeRadhika NagpalMick Mountz, and Gil Pratt. Raibert’s presentation featured some video that we’d never seen before as well as tantalizing hints of what Boston Dynamics has been working on.

Here’s the clip that’s been going around, with Raibert showing some footage of Spot (an agile autonomous quadruped) opening a door with a manipulator mounted on it’s um, face (not nearly as scary as this), followed by ATLAS doing some dynamic walking outside, which is definitely new:

It’s tempting to look at this and wonder why ATLAS robots were falling down all over the place at the DRC Finals, but as Raibert says, the key here is that the robot is able to stabilize itself by moving quickly and balancing dynamically, which certainly works but (I’m guessing) drains an impractical amount of power and isn’t really what the DRC was designed for.

This was just part of Raibert’s presentation; here’s an image of that next slide:


On the left, you’re looking at a version of ATLAS’ leg: it’s a bunch of different parts and materials all cobbled together with bolts. On the right is Boston Dynamics’ “vision for the future:” an additively manufactured leg that has all of its hydraulic components printed directly into its structure. It looks like there’s a lot of bio-inspired design being worked in here, with the “arterial fluid routing” and a lattice structure that looks very bone-like. We haven’t seen an actual picture of this thing yet, but it sounds like BD has one already, according to Raibert:

“I can’t show you the robot yet, but we’re pursuing this pretty aggressively, and I think by the end of the year, you’ll see robots from us that use an approach of fabrication that’s more like that.”

Boston Dynamics isn’t the only company to be working on this technology; at ICRA earlier this year, we saw some prototypes of hydraulic actuators that Moog (this Moog, not this Moog) is developing for the legs of IIT’s HyQ quadruped robot:

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

These “highly integrated smart actuators” are additively manufactured, and rather than using tubing to channel hydraulic fluid, the fluid is piped directly through the structure of the actuator itself, making it highly robust. The actuator is also more compact, and weighs less. 

While Boston Dynamics does have the tendency to overwhelm whatever robotics panel they happen to be on, it’s certainly worth watching the entire thing. It’s only about 45 minutes long (the talks are quick), and we’ve embedded it for you below.

[ Fab 11 ]

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