In June 2021, Hyundai Motor Group acquired an 80 per cent stake in Boston Dynamics – a company famous for its dancing robots – from Softbank Group. Marc Raibert, Boston Dynamics founder and Chairman, reveals to Auto Futures how the synergy from Hyundai will propel its robots into the future of industrial logistics, manufacturing, and maybe the metaverse.
Raibert founded Boston Dynamics in 1992. It was a spin-off out from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Raibert was Professor of Computer Science and Robotics.
“Hyundai and Boston Dynamics is a match made in heaven. Hyundai is a mobility driven robotics company making robots that can go anywhere on earth or beyond. We offer Hyundai the opportunity to gain all our technology and work together. We’re both driven by innovation,” says Raibert.
He notes Hyundai Motor Group executive chairman, Euisun Chung, is excited and committed to having Hyundai be a key player in the robotics world.
“We have a few hundred robots out there in the field and plans for making many more next year. Having the design, manufacturing, reliability, support and skills that exist at a company like Hyundai is a huge asset for us,” he says.
Boston Dynamics is working on three robots – Spot, the four-legged dog looking bot, Stretch and Atlas the humanoid robot. They all came to fame in the YouTube dance video ‘Do You Love Me?’ doing the Twist, Mashed Potato, and Running Man dances.
Spot Does Things Humans Don’t Do
Raibert says the Spot robot platform can be adapted by customers for all kinds of uses. Spot can be adapted by attaching hardware also through the software interface. Boston Dynamics has deployed several hundred Spot robots, mostly used by industrial customers who are doing patrols, reading gauges and checking equipment status. Plus, there is digital twin creation.
Spot is great at creating a digital twin with a lot of precision, says Raibert.
In a news conference during CES 2022, Raibert explained that robotic twins can be part of an immersive experience and ultimately be part of a metaverse where humans can touch all the physical things and manipulate them.
Spot is being tested for its best uses by academic researchers and many companies. Spot has a roof rack for adding sensors and equipment and an SDK for software development.
Spot robots are good on grounds, going into facilities to look at temperature or check on equipment. Spot may do a gas leak test or something like that where humans do a low rate of checking, explains Raibert.
“It’s usually not very pleasant work climbing around all the areas of a refinery or factory. The alternative of putting digital sensors on all these devices is very expensive.”
Boston Dynamics is selling Spot robots for about $75,000 US Dollars. Adding battery chargers and other equipment increases the cost. Those are small numbers compared to the value of being able to have routine tests on equipment at a facility that was not designed and built right, says Raibert.
Spot is checking radiation levels at Chernobyl. Spot is collecting data at a former nuclear power generating site Sellafield in Cumbria, England, with a special suit protecting it in highly contaminated areas. Spot is being tested in large cavernous spaces by NASA and JPL.
“We are watching what all our customers are doing and trying to figure out how to make a next-generation product that is more suited to the most promising cases. It’s a very exciting time.”
Stretching Boundaries in Logistics
Stretch is a logistics-oriented robot that handles cases and boxes, says Raibert.
Most of the robots out there in logistics are dealing with picking individual items out of pallets or bins and then putting them into an order. Boston Dynamics is focusing on a different problem – which is to handle boxes that come in. There are half a trillion boxes handled around the world every year. They get loaded onto trucks – taken off of trucks and put on pallets.
“We have Stretch robots in limited use currently in test locations. We have a lot of people lined up to use it in their warehouses. Next year will be a more major launch of the productized version of that robot,” he notes.
A Human-like Robot
Today-Spot. Tomorrow-Stretch. Then, in the future, Boston Dynamics is working on a humanoid robot Atlas. Atlas can be seen on YouTube doing varieties of much more advanced physical activities, says Raibert.
“We use Atlas as a research platform to develop new technology. We plan to continue doing that but probably not offer it as a product that people can buy.”
Having more advanced vision systems for robots is part of the story and that is unfolding, reports Raibert.
How Does the Hyundai Purchase Affect Boston Dynamics’ Future?
“We are still in the early days. On one hand, there is a commitment at Hyundai for us to keep doing what we are doing. So, I think you are going to see all the things we are doing in an enhanced state and continue to go on,” says Raibert.
“We are also building connections with Hyundai and starting some joint products projects. Although we’ve been a product company for a short time—we’ve been an R&D company for a very long time. I think they see value in that and are going to continue to invest in that so we can continue the legacy as well as the commercial side of things,” he adds, “So I would say it’s all good.”
How Hyundai Will Use Boston Dynamics Robots and AI in Mobility
“It’s definitely on our plan to explore how the AI that is in our robots and some of our mechanical designs, such as the athletic intelligence of our robots can be made valuable to cars and urban mobility vehicles. We Haven’t started on that yet,” says Raibert.
Boston Dynamics is identifying places in Hyundai factories that are making cars both legacy factories and futuristic ones.
“I think you are going to see manufacturing interaction happen and certainly the other direction – Hyundai’s manufacturing is going to help with building our robots.”
He reports that YouTube videos show robots going into several test situations in which they react quickly to changing environments.
Robots And Automotive Manufacturing
Raibert sees the first uses of Boston Dynamics robots doing mid-assembly inspections where a robot could travel around an assembly line or examine parts of the vehicle to make sure they were put together the way they were supposed. Or to verify steps in the process. The next step is to do some of the assembly steps.
The other opportunity is to help with the logistics. When building a car the parts that are in the process of the assembly line have to be put in the location where they have to be used. That’s another job where some Boston Dynamics’ robots could be useful.
“The broad answer is I think we need to have more experience. We’ve never been part of a car company or that focus. We are already looking at experiments planned in the very near future.”
“Our goal is to make the next generation of robots.”
Motional is a company that Hyundai is working with on self-driving cars. Raibert has been friends with Karl Iagnemma, CEO of Motional, for 20 years or so.
“Motional has a huge group that is very sophisticated working on the problems of autonomous driving. So, I am not going to jump in and say we are going to show them how to do it,” he says, “But some of what we’ve done could be very useful – we have to figure it out.”
Going forward, Boston Dynamics is starting to look beyond robots with legs.
“We, as a company, are no longer just focused on legged robots, even though Spot and Atlas are of that form. I think hybrid vehicles that have some wheel-like characteristics and some leg-like characteristics, like adaptive suspension in a car, may be taken to the next level. It is a very interesting prospect,” say Raibert.
“The space is a marvellous palette for us to work in. I don’t know exactly what you’ll see in our products – but I am fascinated by the possibilities.”
He concludes: “I think both Hyundai and Boston Dynamics believe in investing in R&D. Our goal is to make the next generation of robots. Not just the ones you have today and what we are going to make tomorrow but for future generations of robots by inventing the technology that is needed to do that. That’s going to lead to building the robots of our dreams.”