All work and (some) play
Watching Atlas, Spot or Handle perform their feats on YouTube inspires a mix of fascination and worry. The humanoid robot Atlas easily does a handstand, skillfully rolls off, somersaults and jumps over tree logs and wooden boxes parkour-style. Atlas overcomes rocks, roots and even snow as if it were child’s play – and if the machine should fall down for a change it just gets up again and keeps going. No other humanoid robot features more advanced development or even comes close to having the kind of dexterity and agility as Atlas. That’s reminiscent of the Terminator. Atlas’s four-legged colleague, Spot, is the size of a Golden Retriever and can perform feats like skipping rope, using its robotic arm to open doors or pulling a heavy truck as part of a pack, and more. In a video clip published just a few weeks ago, Atlas, Spot and the logistics robot Handle that’s somewhat reminiscent of a bird even shake a leg – or wheel – on a dance floor.
The adroitness and acrobatics of the robots created by Boston Dynamics in the United States equally impress laypersons and experts, as the millions of clicks scored by the videos of their evolutionary progress keep proving. Just maintaining constant balance during dynamic movements or regaining it after a fall used to be an impossible feat for legged robots for a long time. However, the expert world finds the learning ability of systems like Atlas even more remarkable: The robots don’t need to first be fed with data about the terrain in which they move or about which path they should follow – they just start walking and then adapt their actions to the surroundings that they interpret with the help of their sensors. It almost seems as if the Boston Dynamics robots were free to go wherever they like, at least as far as one battery charge will take them. Which, as the developers admit, isn’t true yet but is clearly the objective they pursue.
Like humans and animals, the robots from Boston Dynamics are supposed to have nearly unlimited freedom of movement someday. That’s a nice vision, but are the currently performed gymnastics and dances really more than just technical gimmicks? Where’s the benefit, where are the commercial applications? “We think that the skills inherent in dance and parkour, like agility, balance and perception, are fundamental to a wide variety of robot applications,” says Aaron Saunders, Vice President of Engineering at Boston Dynamics. “Spot, through its productization, has become incredibly robust, and required almost no maintenance – it could just dance all day long once you taught it to. And the reason it’s so robust today is because of all those lessons we learned from previous things that may have just seemed weird and fun.”
Here’s looking at you, Robo!
Disney is pursuing the utilization of robots from its own research lab as stuntmen and women in movies and theme parks
Contract research for the Pentagon
Marking the beginning of a new age, Spot, the yellow four-legged robot, is the first commercial product of the company that in 1992 was founded by Marc Raibert as a spin-off of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Former MIT professor Raibert was previously pursuing his play instinct with no holds barred, while other robot manufacturers like Mitsubishi, ABB, Fanuc, Kawasaki, Yaskawa, KUKA and Dürr had long begun to successfully integrate their metallic helpers into the world’s manufacturing processes – as highly efficient workers pursuing their monotonous activities with precision and speed. Raibert, intent on developing legged robots with the agility and adroitness of humans and animals, wanted his robots to be different. The start-up company was able to afford such costly research work with no market relevance because it found a powerful sponsor in DARPA, a research agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, early on. For the Pentagon’s hotbed of ideas, Boston Dynamics, for instance, developed the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), an all-terrain robotic mule capable of carrying up to 180 kilograms (400 pounds) of military field pack over a distance of some 30 kilometers (19 miles). Atlas’s predecessor, Petman, was one of the DARPA contract developments as well. The humanoid was used for testing the special clothing worn by soldiers for protection against chemicals.
Impressed by the development successes, Google’s parent corporation, Alphabet, acquired the up-and-coming robotics company at the end of 2013. However, due to a lack of business prospects, the internet giant soon gave up the robotics offensive it had launched with high expectations and sold Boston Dynamics to the Japanese Softbank corporation in 2017. But the technology holding company did not find total happiness with the robotics outfit either. At the end of last year, Softbank announced that it would pass its majority stake in Boston Dynamics on to Hyundai Motor Group. As of mid-2021, the South Korean car corporation will hold about 80 percent of the robotics company that by now is valued at 1.1 billion dollars and Softbank will retain the remaining stake, according to the announcement. Meanwhile, Boston Dynamics has been continuing what the company has always been doing: developing exciting robots. Spot, the bearer of hope, has been created during this eventful period as well.
As costly as a luxury car
Packed with sensors, it’s now planned to make its breakthrough as an inspection robot and, to the tune of some 75,000 dollars per unit, generate the U.S. company’s first sales. Early adopters include the New York City Police Department, where Spot – dubbed Digidog – is deployed on scouting missions, and SpaceX, where the four-legged robot examines wrecked rockets. “Chances for a breakthrough on the market are good,” says Marc Dassler, CEO of the start-up Energy Robotics based in Darmstadt, Germany. The company that was founded two years ago is the market leader in special software that makes robots from all manufacturers smarter – including Spot. “Autonomous, mobile robots operating on oil platforms and moving around chemical plants or production halls while checking valves, detecting gas leaks or reading temperature and pressure gauges are about to make their commercial breakthrough,” estimates Dassler. The reason is simple: the systems are now economically feasible. “Hardware and sensors have become affordable and the computing power required for machine vision can be complemented by cloud computing. Plus, the high Wifi, 4G or 5G network coverage enables robotic control in real time.”
Consequently, the fact that Hyundai has acquired Boston Dynamics comes as no surprise to the robotics expert. “As a diversified conglomerate, Hyundai has good market access and the potential of truly making use of the technologies that Boston Dynamics offers,” says Dassler. The automaker, though, was not expecting to generate profits quickly, says Alexander Götte from the h&z business consultancy, because, “even if sales increase with Spot, they won’t come close to offsetting the development costs in the coming years.” Hyundai was not investing in products here but in technology know-how, the development of platforms and protection against disruption: “That’s why, from an external perspective, I consider the Boston Dynamics acquisition to be an excellent strategic move by Hyundai,” says the digitalization expert. Just understanding the advanced robotics technology in detail is of benefit to the car corporation, if nothing else.
The car that kneels down
Even before Hyundai acquired Boston Dynamics, the Koreans presented a concept vehicle that could have come from the robo hotbed as well: The mobile transformer TIGER (Transforming Intelligent Ground Excursion Robot) unites the two locomotion concepts of walking and rolling, which makes it extremely agile. The TIGER can cross not only any type of terrain but also move in any desired direction – forward, backward, sideways and diagonally. No fewer than 28 motors make for maximum agility. So-called Ultimate Mobility Vehicles (UMV) such as the TIGER are suitable for particularly challenging applications and environments and adaptable to changing conditions. In natural catastrophes, for instance, they could be saving lives as first responders. Or they make it possible for people in wheelchairs who are unable to handle the steps in front of their home to be picked up at their doorstep. Hyundai is planning “to redefine vehicle mobility by combining robotics and rolling locomotion,” according to the company.
Forward, backward, sideways: the TIGER concept vehicle unites walking and rolling as forms of locomotion, which makes it extremely agile and versatile
Trailblazer for new mobility concepts
“In addition, such a forward-thinking investment in robotics and related technologies increases the opportunities to attract corresponding technological know-how and young talent to the company,” says Götte. That’s exactly what the South Koreans are desperately seeking: in the long run, Hyundai is planning to cut in half the share of its sales for which the car business accounts, according to the Financial Times. 20 percent of the reductions are supposed to be offset by earnings from robotics and 30 percent by the Urban Air Mobility business. Hyundai anticipates overall growth potential in logistics and inspection robots used in warehouses and factories and for service robots that can assist disabled or older people. In this promising healthcare setting, human robots are to be employed in “the course of time” as well.
“This transaction will unite capabilities of Hyundai Motor Group and Boston Dynamics to spearhead innovation in future mobility,” says Euisun Chung, CEO of Hyundai Motor Group. Robert Playter, CEO of Boston Dynamics, comments on the deal likes this: “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.” The latter strongly sounds like the fans of Boston Dynamics can hope to continue seeing new members of the robotics family and spectacular videos in the new constellation as well.