Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert today shared what’s next for Spot, the company’s quadruped robot that can climb stairs and traverse rough terrain. In a few months, Boston Dynamics will start selling Spot with a robot arm to businesses interested in mobile manipulation systems. And eventually, the company wants to sell Spot for use in the home.
Last week, Boston Dynamics opened commercial sales of Spot, marking the company’s first online sales offering and the first time that businesses can purchase its robots directly. Businesses can buy the Spot Explorer developer kit for $74,500 directly on the company’s website (that price is going to have to come down if Spot is to show up in the home). Spot’s modular platform (mounting rails, payload ports, and SDK) is what sets it apart from other robots. The company is now selling add-ons ranging from $1,650 for an extra charger all the way up to $34,570 for a lidar and camera system. But the robot arm, which Boston Dynamics has teased for years, is not yet for sale.
Raibert shared the latest news at the Collision from Home conference today. The first part of his talk was a repeat of his previous appearances, including at Web Summit in November (see our in-depth interview). But with Spot commercial sales kicked off and with COVID-19 opening the door wider to autonomous technologies like drones and robots, Raibert had plenty more to add.
Today, Boston Dynamics customers largely use Spot to keep employees out of harm’s way, doing dangerous work so humans don’t have to. But Raibert envisions Spot taking care of the disabled and the elderly, and helping the general public in the home with everyday tasks. He also emphasized that Boston Dynamics hopes other companies will step in to build out the Spot ecosystem.
“Part of the idea of Spot as a platform is that we’re not going to do all the development,” Raibert said. “We’re going to work with other people who have their own ideas.”
Spot with a robot arm
Spot has cameras on its front, back, and sides that help it navigate, travel autonomously, move omnidirectionally, go up and down stairs, and traverse a terrain. The robot travels at about 3 miles per hour, which is about human walking speed, and even has what the engineers call a “chicken head” mode. That means it can decouple the motion of its hand from its body, similar to how many animals can stabilize one part while the rest of the body moves. You can see Boston Dynamics demo this years ago in this video, 48 seconds in:
This decoupling-from-the-body functionality is key to having a useful mobile robot with an arm.
“The next thing on the future Spot is that we’re going to make it available with a robot arm in a few months,” Raibert said. “We have prototypes working, but we don’t have them available as a product yet. Once you have an arm on a robot, it becomes a mobile manipulation system. It really opens up just vast horizons on things robots can do. I believe that the mobility of the robot will contribute to the dexterity of the robot in ways that we just don’t get with current fixed factory automation.”
Spot in the home
When a business buys a Spot, they have to agree to the terms and conditions, like for any other major product purchase. One of the key lines in the terms states: “Spot is an amazing robot, but is not certified safe for in-home use or intended for use near children or others who may not appreciate the hazards associated with its operation.”
But that’s not going to be the case forever.
“We also have a project that I’m sure many of you are going to be very interested in, and that’s cleaning up your house,” Raibert explained. “Now, Spot isn’t available yet for home use, but someday it will be. I think you’re going to love the idea that the robot can be put in a room and use its vision system to identify your kids’ clothing that’s been lying around, or maybe your clothing that’s been lying around. And then, look around and go over and grasp it and put it in the laundry basket, like this robot is doing in this prototype.”
That robot arm comes in particularly handy, no pun intended, for the laundry use case. Raibert said that Spot is already capable of doing such a laundry cleanup on its own, without an engineer directing it through the process. Spot relies on computer vision in the cloud to determine whether a given object that it’s looking at should be placed in the basket or left where it is.
Raibert also showed off Spot delivering packages to a home, noting the robot could be potentially used for the last 50-100 yards in the shipping journey.
“I don’t know about you, but when I get a package today, I worry about whether the driver of the car was adequately careful with washing his hands and wearing his mask and all that stuff. And I don’t actually go near him. Wouldn’t it be nice if a robot was doing the deliveries so I didn’t have that worry?”