See Spot dance: Watch a Boston Dynamics robot get a little funky

In this fun video the Boston Dynamics Spot dances, wiggles, and shimmies right into our hearts. This little four-legged robot – a smaller sibling to the massive Big Dog – is surprisingly agile and the team at Boston Robotics have taught the little robot to dance to Bruno Mars which means that robots could soon […]

In this fun video the Boston Dynamics Spot dances, wiggles, and shimmies right into our hearts. This little four-legged robot – a smaller sibling to the massive Big Dog – is surprisingly agile and the team at Boston Robotics have taught the little robot to dance to Bruno Mars which means that robots could soon replace us on the factory floor and on the dance floor. Good luck, meatbags!

As one YouTube commenter noted: if you think Spot is happy now just imagine how it will dance when we’re all gone!

Watch Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot leap up massive steps like it’s nothing

Two years ago, Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot Atlas needed a big ol’ safety tether to shuffle its way down a flat hiking trail. Five years ago it needed a big, bolted-down support structure to keep itself upright. Now it’s casually leaping up and over obstacles that would leave many humans huffing and puffing. The company demonstrated […]

Two years ago, Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot Atlas needed a big ol’ safety tether to shuffle its way down a flat hiking trail. Five years ago it needed a big, bolted-down support structure to keep itself upright.

Now it’s casually leaping up and over obstacles that would leave many humans huffing and puffing.

The company demonstrated Atlas’ newly found hops in a video published this morning:

It starts with a lil’ leap over a log before Atlas bounds its way right up a set of 40 cm (1.3 ft) steps.

While just getting a massive, heavy robot to walk on two feet is a feat few companies have cracked, there’s a whole set of new challenges at play here. Getting Atlas’ limbs up and over the step, while appropriately shifting the weight and momentum onto one foot without the whole thing face-planting… it’s a complicated set of mechanics. Notice the sideways leaps, and — particularly in the slow motion cut at the 9-second mark — the way the hips/feet seem to angle a bit to compensate.

(For the curious: Atlas weighs around 180 lbs, as of the last time Boston Dynamics disclosed the numbers.)

At this point, we’ve gone from “Haha, neat, look at the funny robot running like a human,” to “I’m pretty sure that robot could beat me up.”

Wondering what the company is up to here? We talked with Boston Dynamics’ founder Marc Raibert about the hows and whys a few months back at our robotics event in Berkeley. The video is below:

Why engineers are looking to animals for new technology

As a race, human beings have a lot of shortcomings. We’re not very fast, not all that strong and while we have been able to create technology that helps us overcome our environments, we’re not very good at adapting to them. Animals, on the other hand, have been successfully adapting and evolving to meet the […]

As a race, human beings have a lot of shortcomings. We’re not very fast, not all that strong and while we have been able to create technology that helps us overcome our environments, we’re not very good at adapting to them. Animals, on the other hand, have been successfully adapting and evolving to meet the world’s challenges long before we were stumbling around.

While it might be too late for us to learn these lessons ourselves from our animal counterparts, it’s not too late to pass them on to our inventions. And biomimetic and bio-inspired labs across the world are doing just that.

“If you think about mobility technology in the engineering world, we have airplanes in the air, ships in the water, but none of these technologies are available without our artificial modification of the environment,” Dr. Sangbae Kim, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and director of the university’s Biomimetic Robotics Laboratory, told TechCrunch. “Animals have evolved to be the best at mobility, because, for most of them, it’s critical for survival.”

Crafting technology to mimic nature is nothing new, Kim says. From developing aerodynamic technology to small conveniences like Velcro, humans have been taking a cue from the natural world for as long as we’ve been inventing. The field of engineering, says Kim, has this kind of inspiration as an intrinsic feature and it will be crucial to solving problems such as disaster reconnaissance, labor and even elderly care.

“This is technology we must have,” says Kim. “Not just something cool to have.”

With new technological developments, this kind of inspired design has gone far beyond Velcro in recent years.

Cheetah 3

A prodigy of Kim’s lab, the Cheetah 3 is a 90 pound rescue robot designed to traverse terrain that is dangerous or inaccessible to humans (e.g. power plant inspection of natural disaster reconnaissance) with cat-like reflexes and motion. Its predecessors have been able to make autonomous running leaps over obstacles in their path (granted, at a considerably slower speed than its namesake) and Cheetah 3 has the added functionality to complete all these tasks while blind. By not relying on its sensors and cameras, Cheetah 3 is designed to have a better intuitive knowledge of its environment and perform in scenarios that are either too dark or “noisy” (too visually stimulating.)

Sharklet 

Natural inspiration is not only found in robotics, but in material engineering as well. In 2002, Dr. Anthony Brennan, a material science and engineering professor at the University of Florida, was participating in Naval research to design strategies to keep vessels from growing algae and barnacles on their sides. While exploring the question, Brennan discovered that sharks — who spend their lives slowly moving through water — had answered it long ago. Examining the patterns in a shark’s scales, Brennan discovered that the unique ribbed, diamond structure of the shark’s scales discouraged microorganisms from settling on the surface.

Taking this discovery beyond naval ships, Brennan founded the company Sharklet in 2007 to design medical instruments built with this topology and create a non-toxic antibiotic alternative to harsh chemical cleaners.

Biomimetic Worm Bot

Out of Case Western Reserve University’s Biologically Inspired Robotics lab, this creepy-crawly bot is helping both roboticists and neuroscientists better understand a type of motion called peristalsis — or movement through contracting and expanding of muscle. While this kind of movement is not unique to earth-worms (humans, in fact, do it when swallowing), the ability to propel and maneuver their bodies through tight spaces with it is. To study this motion, the lab created the CMMWorm (Compliant Modular Mesh Worm) — a soft robot with a Lego-like capability to have segments detached and rearranged. Researchers told Gizmodo that they hope this kind of soft robot could be useful in situations as small as medical endoscopies and as large as investigating blocked pipes.

 

SpotMini 

And who could forget, man’s best friend, Boston Dynamic’s SpotMini. This electric robot weighs about 66 pounds, stands at just under three feet tall and can last for 90 minutes on just one charge. At TC Sessions: Robotics held at UC Berkeley this summer Boston Dynamics announced its plans to move SpotMini into pre-production and begin selling the bot in 2019 — marking the first move toward commercialization for the company. Boston Dynamics says that SpotMini would fit well into a home or office space, but doing what exactly is still a little unclear.

If you’re just looking for some canine-like companionship, you might be better off cozying up to Sony’s pricey Aibo instead.

Robotics-as-a-service is on the way and inVia Robotics is leading the charge

The team at inVia Robotics didn’t start out looking to build a business that would create a new kind of model for selling robotics to the masses, but that may be exactly what they’ve done. After their graduation from the University of Southern California’s robotics program, Lior Alazary, Dan Parks, and Randolph Voorhies, were casting […]

The team at inVia Robotics didn’t start out looking to build a business that would create a new kind of model for selling robotics to the masses, but that may be exactly what they’ve done.

After their graduation from the University of Southern California’s robotics program, Lior Alazary, Dan Parks, and Randolph Voorhies, were casting around for ideas that could get traction quickly.

“Our goal was to get something up and running that could make economic sense immediately,’ Voorhies, the company’s chief technology officer, said in an interview.

The key was to learn from the lessons of what the team had seen as the missteps of past robotics manufacturers.

Despite the early success of iRobot, consumer facing or collaborative robots that could operate alongside people had yet to gain traction in wider markets.

Willow Garage, the legendary company formed by some of the top names in the robotics industry had shuttered just as Voorhies and his compatriots were graduating, and Boston Dynamics, another of the biggest names in robotics research, was bought by Google around the same time — capping an six-month buying spree that saw the search giant acquire eight robotics companies.

In the midst of all this we were looking around and we said, ‘God there were a lot of failed robotics companies!’ and we asked ourselves why did that happen?” Voorhies recalled. “A lot of the hardware companies that we’d seen, their plan was: step one build a really cool robot and step three: an app ecosystem will evolve and people will write apps and the robot will sell like crazy. And nobody had realized how to do step 2, which was commercialize the robot.”

So the three co-founders looked for ideas they could take to market quickly.

The thought was building a robot that could help with mobility and reaching for objects. “We built a six-degree-of-freedom arm with a mobile base,” Voorhies said.

However, the arm was tricky to build, components were expensive and there were too many variables in the environment for things to go wrong with the robot’s operations. Ultimately the team at inVia realized that the big successes in robotics were happening in controlled environments. 

“We very quickly realized that the environment is too unpredictable and there were too many different kinds of things that we needed to do,” he said. 

Parks then put together a white paper analyzing the different controlled environments where collaborative robots could be most easily deployed. The warehouse was the obvious choice.

Back in March of 2012 Amazon had come to the same conclusion and acquired Kiva Systems in a $775 million deal that brought Kiva’s army of robots to Amazon warehouses and distribution centers around the world.

“Dan put a white paper together for Lior and I,” Voorhies said, “and the thing really stuck out was eCommerce logistics. Floors tend to be concrete slabs; they’re very flat with very little grade, and in general people are picking things off a shelf and putting them somewhere else.”

With the idea in place, the team, which included technologists Voorhies and Parks, and Lazary, a serial entrepreneur who had already exited from two businesses, just needed to get a working prototype together.

Most warehouses and shipping facilities that weren’t Amazon were using automated storage and retrieval systems, Voorhies said. These big, automated systems that looked and worked like massive vending machines. But those systems, he said, involved a lot of sunk costs, and weren’t flexible or adaptable.

And those old systems weren’t built for random access patterns and multi-use orders which comprise most of the shipping and packing that are done as eCommerce takes off.

With those sunk costs though, warehouses are reluctant to change the model. The innovation that Voorhies and his team came up with, was that the logistics providers wouldn’t have to.

“We didn’t like the upfront investment, not just to install one but just to start a company to build those things,” said Voorhies. “We wanted something we could bootstrap ourselves and grow very organically and just see wins very very quickly. So we looked at those ASRS systems and said why don’t we build mobile robots to do this.”

In the beginning, the team at inVia played with different ways to build the robot.l first there was a robot that could carry several different objects and another that would be responsible for picking.

The form factor that the company eventually decided on was a movable puck shaped base with a scissor lift that can move a platform up and down. Attached to the back of the platform is a robotic arm that can extend forward and backward and has a suction pump attached to its end. The suction pump drags boxes onto a platform that are then taken to a pick and pack employee.

We were originally going to grab individual product.s. Once we started talking to real warehouses more and more we realized that everyone stores everything in these boxes anyway,” said Voorhies. “And we said why don’t we make our lives way easier, why don’t we just grab those totes?” 

Since bootstrapping that initial robot, inVia has gone on to raise $29 million in financing to support its vision. Most recently with a $20 million round which closed in July.

“E-commerce industry growth is driving the need for more warehouse automation to fulfill demand, and AI-driven robots can deliver that automation with the flexibility to scale across varied workflows. Our investment in inVia Robotics reflects our conviction in AI as a key enabler for the supply chain industry,” said Daniel Gwak, Co-Head, AI Investments at Point72 Ventures, the early stage investment firm formed by the famed hedge fund manager, Steven Cohen.

Given the pressures on shipping and logistics companies, it’s no surprise that the robotics and automation are becoming critically important strategic investments, or that venture capital is flooding int the market. In the past two months alone, robotics companies targeting warehouse and retail automation have raised nearly $70 million in new financing. They include the recent raised $17.7 million for the French startup Exotec Solutions and Bossa Nova’s $29 million round for its grocery store robots.

Then there are warehouse-focused robotics companies like Fetch Robotics, which traces its lineage back to Willow Garage and Locus Robotics, which is linked to the logistics services company Quiet Logistics.

“Funding in robotics has been incredible over the past several years, and for good reason,” said John Santagate, Research Director for Commercial Service Robotics at Research and Analysis Firm IDC, in a statement. “The growth in funding is a function of a market that has become accepting of the technology, a technology area that has matured to meet market demands, and vision of the future that must include flexible automation technology. Products must move faster and more efficiently through the warehouse today to keep up with consumer demand and autonomous mobile robots offer a cost-effective way to deploy automation to enable speed, efficiency, and flexibility.”

The team at inVia realized it wasn’t enough to sell the robots. To give warehouses a full sense of the potential cost savings they could have with inVia’s robots, they’d need to take a page from the software playbook. Rather than selling the equipment, they’d sell the work the robots were doing as a service.

“Customers will ask us how much the robots cost and that’s sort of irrelevant,” says Voorhies. “We don’t want customers to think about those things at all.”

Contracts between inVia and logistics companies are based on the unit of work done, Voorhies said. “We charge on the order line,” says Voorhies. “An order line is a single [stock keeping unit] that somebody would order regardless of quantity… We’re essentially charging them every time a robot has to bring a tote and present it in front of a person. The faster we’re able to do that and the less robots we can use to present an item the better our margins are.”

It may not sound like a huge change, but those kinds of efficiencies matter in warehouses, Voorhies said. “If you’re a person pushing a cart in a warehouse that cart can have 35 pallets on it. With us, that person is standing still, and they’re really not limited to a single cart. They are able to fill 70 orders at the same time rather than 55,” he said.

At Rakuten logistics, the deployment of inVia’s robots are already yielding returns, according to Michael Manzione, the chief executive officer of Rakuten Super Logistics.

“Really [robotics] being used in a fulfillment center is pretty new,” said Manzione in an interview. “We started looking at the product in late February and went live in late March.”

For Manzione, the big selling point was scaling the robots quickly, with no upfront cost. “The bottom line is ging to be effective when we see planning around the holiday season,” said Manzione. “We’re not planning on bringing in additional people, versus last year when we doubled our labor.”

As Voorhies notes, training a team to work effectively in a warehouse environment isn’t easy.

The big problem is that it’s really hard to hire extra people to do this. In a warehouse there’s a dedicated core team that really kicks ass and they’re really happy with those pickers and they will be happy with what they get from whatever those people can sweat out in a shift,” Voorhies said. “Once you need to push your throughput beyond what your core team can do it’s hard to find people who can do that job well.” 

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