Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert, speaking at a recent TechCrunch robotics conference at UC Berkeley, surprised everyone by saying that its SpotMini robot will go on sale in 2019. SpotMini is a small four-legged robot that weighs 25 kg (30 kg if you include the arm). It’s all-electric and can go for about 90 minutes on a charge, depending on what it’s doing (Fig 1). Raibert said that SpotMini is the quietest robot Boston Dynamics has ever built. Eventually, the company hopes to sell it for use in people's homes.
1. At the TechCrunch robotics conference, a human operator pilots a Boston Dynamics' SpotMini robot, enabling it to walk sideways over obstacles.
SpotMini was introduced in 2017 and is based on the company’s “bigger brother” quadruped Spot (Fig. 2). SpotMini inherits all of the mobility of Spot, with the added ability to pick up and handle objects using its five-degree-of-freedom arm and beefed-up perception sensors. The sensor suite includes stereo cameras, depth cameras, and position/force sensors in the limbs. These sensors help with navigation and mobile manipulation. A human operator pilots the SpotMini, giving commands about where to go, but not how to position its legs.
The company currently has 10 SpotMini prototypes, and is working with manufacturing partners to build the first 100 SpotMinis later this year for commercial purposes. They’re scaling production with the goal of selling SpotMini in 2019. They haven’t announced price yet, but said that the latest SpotMini prototype cost 10 times less to build than the iteration before it.
2. Spot is an electrically powered and hydraulically actuated four-legged robot. It senses rough-terrain environment using LiDAR and stereo vision in conjunction with a suite of on-board sensors to maintain balance and negotiate rough terrain. The robot carries a 23-kg payload and operates for 45 minutes on a battery charge.
What Can It Do?
The dog-like SpotMini robot climbs up and down stairs. The first version of the SpotMini walked, rolled over, and even put objects in a dishwasher. Last year, it was revamped and can now walk by itself using autonomous navigation.
The company released several videos that showed the SpotMini in action. One video shows SpotMini approaching a door and subsequently met with resistance in the form of a person wielding a hockey stick:
The conflict between man and machine lasts roughly 30 seconds before the robot wins. “Software provides locomotion, balance, and adjusts SpotMini’s behavior when progress gets off track,” reads the video’s YouTube description. “The ability to tolerate and respond automatically to disturbances like these improves successful operation of the robot.”
In another video, the company demonstrated how the quadruped can navigate through an office and lab facility all on its own, avoiding obstacles and even climbing stairs. Using cameras on its front, back, and sides, SpotMini can map an area and then use that information to navigate through it later on. The robot was manually driven on a path ahead of this test, which allowed it to build a map of the space. Afterwards, SpotMini used its cameras to localize itself within that map.
Yet another video shows the robot extending an arm out of its head to turn a handle. With the dexterity of a tray-carrying butler, it uses its foot to prop the door ajar, then elbows it all the way open for a (armless) SpotMini friend to walk through. It's also an interesting twist in the quest to make robots that get along with a world built by and for humans.
Unlike humanoid robots, SpotMini has four limbs, which are inherently more stable than two. Plus, it’s more energy-efficient if you don’t have to constantly balance your machine. This newest version of SpotMini marries the stability of a quadruped with the dexterity of a human.
Where Can It Be Used?
CEO Raibert discussed possible applications:
Specifically, he says, "I think people think that it’s easy to get around with wheeled [robots], but that’s really not the case. Every place you go has some obstacle that wheeled things struggle with,” like going up and down stairs for search-and-rescue missions. “We think SpotMini can go to a much larger fraction of places.”
Among the other possible applications for the SpotMini robots could be security patrols or to help construction companies keep tabs on what's happening at building sites. Raibert said that SpotMini can be customized with attachments and extra software for particular jobs.
SpotMini uses stereo cameras. It perceives its surroundings with a sophisticated 3D vision system, and can even make its own way through a warehouse without user input. With the help of a neck attachment, SpotMini can grab the newspaper for you and also play fetch.
Buyers will eventually be able to mount their own hardware on SpotMini’s back. Boston Dynamics is also working on its own add-on packages, such as a surveillance package with special cameras that can mount on the back. And an arm that helps the robot open doors will be an extra option that’s removable.
The CEO explained that the robot is actually designed to be a platform with ports to connect third-party hardware and software. Boston Dynamics is developing some apps and reference packages for SpotMini, such as a surveillance package that adds special low-light cameras to the robot. It’s also looking at other possible uses for robots in areas such as construction and mobility.