There’s an air of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory lurking off Route 128 in Waltham. But it’s not confectionary secrets hiding behind the high walls — it’s robots.
Boston Dynamics is most famous for the incredible YouTube videos of its dog-like robot Spot and humanoid robot Atlas. At the Waltham headquarters, a 10-foot wooden fence hides an outdoor obstacle course for the machines, complete with loose rocky paths, staircases, and a powerful shower to simulate rainy conditions.
I got a tour of the facility, which opened two years ago, on a rainy day last week. The modern building poised just off the highway houses research, testing, and development functions while robots sold to customers are manufactured at a factory nearby.
Former MIT professor Marc Raibert started the company 30 years ago as an outgrowth of his research into creating machines that mimicked the leg movements and balance of humans and animals. Just past the lobby in the new headquarters, the company has a museum showing the evolution of its robots. Starting with a 1990 “hopper” from Raibert’s lab at MIT, the museum has everything from “sand flea,” a compact box on wheels that could jump 10 meters in the air, right through to the precursors to Spot and Atlas.
Deeper inside the facility, Boston Dynamics has indoor courses to show off the skills of Spot, Atlas, and the newest addition, a robot called Stretch that can unload boxes from a truck or shipping container. Spot, the dog-like yellow and grey robot, can be fitted with an assortment of tools and sensors — you may have seen the recent video when the State Police used a Spot robot to handle a suspicious object at a Stoneham gas station. (It turned out to be an e-bike battery.)
Spot can be programmed to follow a preset course or maneuvered in real time by remote control. When I was handed the tablet with the joystick controls, I made Spot dutifully march up and down a narrow metal staircase and smoothly crunch over a rocky path. I just told Spot where to go — the robot used its own sensors, actuators, and computers to plot its moves.
In another part of the office, a variety of Spots are being programmed and tested for new tasks requested by customers. Anheuser-Busch wants to use the robots to walk around a factory and inspect for leaks, but Spot initially had trouble on the slippery floors. So one Spot in Waltham is beta-testing new, grippier feet.
The newest Boston Dynamics robot, Stretch, may be the least exciting to watch but the most important for the future of the company, now owned by Hyundai Motor Co.
Using a vacuum at the end of a long arm, Stretch can lift boxes weighing up to 50 pounds and unpack the contents of a truck onto a conveyor belt. The tricky part is Stretch’s computer-vision system that allows the robot to figure out what to pick up, where to put it, and how to avoid any obstacles along the way.
“Logistics was a nice opportunity for ... Stretch, because I saw that there was a huge opening there,” chief executive Rob Playter told me. “And the rest of the robotics community is seeing that as well.”
Playter, who took over as chief executive when Raibert shifted to board chair in 2020, may have the perfect collegiate background for his role. He was both an aeronautical engineer and an NCAA championship-winning gymnast.
Before I left, Playter sent me to see the humanoid robot Atlas show off its latest trick: a full back-flip somersault. I’m not sure if any factory owner will ever see a need for a back-flipping robot, but it’s going to make an amazing YouTube video.