Last month, I, along with much of the Internet, watched a four-legged robot inch its way toward a closed door. Using an attached arm, the robot found the handle, grasped it, and – rather graciously – cleared the way for another four-legged robo-companion to enter the room.
The scene reminded some viewers of the velociraptors in the movie Jurassic Park. My mind immediately went to the Weasels from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – either way, the robots in the video impressively (and frighteningly to some) saw an obstacle and found a way in.
The 55-lb., all-electric “SpotMini” is one in a family of robots developed by Boston Dynamics. Originally a spin-off of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston Dynamics was purchased by Google in 2014, and then acquired by the Japan-based conglomerate SoftBank in June of 2017.
Besides SpotMini, the company has created a range of other impressive robots. Atlas does a back flip. Handle cruises down a flight of stairs with the grace of an Olympic skier. Wildcat hits speeds of almost 20 miles per hour.
Unlike its “bigger brother,” known simply as “Spot,” Mini can pick up and handle objects using its five-degree-of-freedom arm and perception sensors. The sensor suite, which supports navigation and mobile manipulation, includes stereo cameras, depth cameras, an IMU, and the limbs’ position/force sensors.
So, are these demos showing real help, or fun hype? Where and how will these robots actually be used?
Count NASA’s Dr. Julia Badger as impressed by the video demonstrations.
“They have done an incredible job on the control system of those robots,” said Badger.
As Project Manager, Badger has helped to develop Robonaut, a humanoid robot aboard the International Space Station (ISS). With a torso, two arms, a head, and two legs, the robot manipulates hardware and performs tasks on the ISS, interfacing via handrails and a seat track.
Could we see Robonaut and SpotMini someday playing nice in space? Not quite, according to Badger.
Given the capabilities of the Boston Dynamics-developed robots, the company’s quadrupeds may be too dangerous in close quarters like the International Space Station. Keeping humans out of the immediate workspace is entirely acceptable on land, but not when you’re living in a small pressure vessel in space, says the Autonomous Spacecraft Manager.
“Could you imagine standing near an Atlas doing a backflip?” Badger told Tech Briefs. “What would happen if it missed?”
Some researchers imagine the robots someday sorting packages in factories or cleaning up trash on city streets. Badger envisions the Boston Dynamics’ offerings providing the most value in military or disaster-relief applications, where there’s some distance between the robot and the human. (Although, in 2015, the DARPA-funded BigDog revealed itself to be too loud for the U.S military.)
While there may be pieces of the Boston Dynamics’ portfolio that would translate into technology for space applications, full-on robots like Atlas, or Spot, or Handle do not necessarily apply to the agency’s current missions, according to Badger.
That’s not to say the Robonaut Project Manager and other NASA professionals aren’t moved by the company’s achievements.
“Boston Dynamics has done amazing work – it is definitely not just hype,” said Dr. Aaron Parness, Robotics Group Leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “What a lot of folks confuse, though, is whether the work they are doing is applicable to NASA.”
Most electronics are not built for the radiation and temperature environments that spacecraft must operate in, for example, especially beyond low earth orbit where the protection of Earth’s magnetic field disappears.
Parness oversees teams of employees, students, and industry partners on a variety of projects, including the Microspine Tool and other rock-climbing robots – technologies that can’t do a backflip. When NASA builds legged robots, engineers often choose quadrupeds and hexapods that only move one leg at a time, ensuring that stability is maintained.
The robots that Boston Dynamics develops are most notable for their bipedal walking ability and their way of stabilizing after being knocked around. Such dynamic maneuvers are unlikely behaviors for a NASA robot, says Parness, especially because of power concerns.
Boston Dynamics is known for great advances in actuators, said the Robotics Group Leader, but many of the impressive hydraulic actuators, are viable for land and not space. Given the required output of the Boston Dynamics robots, the hydraulic actuators also call for significant power consumption.
“All of our rovers on Mars are very limited by power; we [at NASA] tend to want robots that are ultra-reliable and stable,” Parness told Tech Briefs. “If you turn off the power to Curiosity, it doesn’t fall down and destroy itself; it is stable at every single point throughout its operation.”
When SoftBank agreed to buy Boston Dynamics in June of 2017, the company’s chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son said: “Smart robotics are going to be a key driver of the next stage of the Information Revolution.” What do you think? Where do you envision Boston Dynamics robots being used? Share your comments below.