Boston Dynamics is probably the most famous robot maker in the world.
Its YouTube videos of running, jumping, and dancing bots have been viewed hundreds of millions of times. Beermaker Sam Adams went with the Waltham robotics company for its Super Bowl ad this year, featuring the dog-like robot Spot pouring beers and humanoid robot Atlas doing flips to the tune of “Shake It” by MC Shy D.
But fame doesn’t always bring fortune. In business for 30 years, Boston Dynamics has been eclipsed commercially by rivals who focused on building less showy machines suited to boring business settings such as warehouses, restaurants, and auto plants.
Now, the MIT spinout is serious about catching up. Its newest robot, Stretch, looks more like a mash-up of a souped-up vacuum cleaner and a dental X-ray machine than anything from the animal kingdom. And while it can’t do parkour or pour a beer, the 6-foot-tall Stretch uses a giant pivoting arm to unload heavy boxes from a truck to a conveyor belt without much human oversight — an offering for the business world that has a much more lucrative potential.
Boston Dynamics’ commercial challenges date to its roots as a spinout from former MIT professor Marc Raibert’s “Leg Lab” in 1992. Until 2019, the company didn’t actually sell its robots commercially. For most of its existence, with Raibert as chief executive, it focused on completing research projects and winning defense contracts and design competitions.
While the company’s early work advanced the field and helped build a thriving local robotics ecosystem, Boston Dynamics hasn’t had the mainstream impact of pioneering companies like Apple in smartphones or Tesla in electric cars. More recent arrivals, such as Symbotic in Wilmington and Amazon Robotics in Westborough (formed by the tech giant’s purchase of Kiva Systems), took the lead in mainstreaming robots into commercial use, performing logistics tasks, particularly in warehouses.
To business customers, meanwhile, Boston Dynamics’ robots looked glitzy but didn’t solve real-world problems. And over the last decade, the company cycled through a series of owners. It was bought by Google in 2013, flipped to SoftBank a few years later, and sold to Hyundai Motor Group last year.
“It isn’t easy turning military research in perception and legged locomotion into real products,” said Michael Gennert, professor emeritus of robotics engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “It isn’t surprising how long it has taken.”
Boston Dynamics’ transition is being led by Rob Playter, an aeronautical engineer who was Raibert’s PhD student at MIT and took over for his former teacher as chief executive three years ago. (Raibert remains as executive chair and is now heading a new research institute in Cambridge devoted to robotics and AI.)
“It’s been a challenging pivot,” Playter said in an interview at the company’s Waltham headquarters. “It’s a big departure from our previous mission, which was driven by innovation and ideas and not so much, for example, by quality and production. But our team is excited about it. Frankly, it’s the next logical step.”
Playter, solid and stout with a trim goatee, looks like he could hold his own arm-wrestling with Atlas. He was a top gymnast in college, helping Ohio State outscore perennial champion Nebraska in 1985 with a 9.9 score in his final routine on the horizontal bars.
Gymnastics helped Playter score a spot at the Leg Lab with Raibert, whose first question was, “Were you any good?” Luckily, Playter was wearing his championship ring. He still keeps in his office a wooden model of a somersaulting figure he built for his PhD thesis, “Passive Dynamics in the Control of Gymnastic Maneuvers.”
After Google sold Boston Dynamics to SoftBank, its billionaire founder Masayoshi Son accelerated the push for products, expanded the company’s workforce, and moved Boston Dynamics to its current headquarters off Route 128.
Spot went on sale for $75,000 a pop in 2019, and the company has since sold about 1,000 of them. Some are used in factories to find leaky pipes using sensors or to map construction sites with a 360-degree camera, while others have been programmed to flip a high-voltage power switch at a utility. A version of Spot picked up a suspicious object at a Stoneham gas station for the State Police bomb squad in September.
Spot, which can be run by a human operator or programmed to follow a pre-specified path, uses its four legs to navigate itself over rocky or uneven terrain and walk up and down stairs.
Boston Dynamics’ new headquarters includes a testing pen for Spot robots. The machines are equipped with sensors, grabbers, or other gear customers have sought. On a recent visit, one Spot was beta-testing more adhesive feet, the better to walk across slippery floors in plants of customer Anheuser-Busch. The beer maker is using Spots equipped with thermal and acoustic sensors to look for leaks at a plant in Georgia.
There’s even an oven chamber to test Spot at high temperatures. And employees working late have to take extra care: After 6 p.m., the Spot machines are allowed out of the pen and have free rein in the building.
Son wanted to move on from the company by the end of 2020. In a deal valued at $1.1 billion, he sold it to Hyundai, which uses robots in its car factories. Now, Boston Dynamics is looking to tap the carmaker’s expertise to build many more robots and bring down prices.
“This is a key chasm to cross for any serious robotics player aiming at building a serious business,” venture capitalist Abe Murray, managing partner at Alley Robotics Ventures, said.
There is steep competition in the warehouse market, particularly from Amazon.
“It’s not about making a YouTube moment,” Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, said. ”These are robots in everyday fulfillment processes, actually doing real-world things at a scale that is really hard to imagine.”
Unlike most of Boston Dynamics’ previous machines, Stretch doesn’t resemble an animal. Attached to a low square base is a bulky black and white robotic arm that wouldn’t look out of place in a car factory, with a rectangular pad of vacuum tips for gripping boxes. To the side of the arm, a camera mast with a computer-vision system assesses stacks of boxes and guides the arm’s movements.
Focusing on real use cases may be less fun for Boston Dynamics’ engineers, however. An earlier prototype for Stretch could zip around and balance on a pair of wheeled legs. Warehouse customers said they didn’t need those abilities. Instead, Stretch sits affixed to a pallet-sized base that has small wheels to maneuver slowly inside a confined space, such as a truck or shipping container.
“I think the market for Stretch will be probably 10 times the number” for Spot, Playter said. “We’ve already got customers who are committing in advance.”
One of those is DHL’s supply chain unit, which operates hundreds of warehouses in North America for companies such as Procter & Gamble and 7-Eleven. Starting in January, DHL will use Stretch robots at six sites to unload trailer trucks.
“It’s the beginning,” DHL supply chain chief information officer Sally Miller said. “And we are working with Boston Dynamics on other ways to use Stretch besides carton unloading.”
Next up, the company will likely tackle new industrial uses. Playter said he has not settled on its next product, but envisions an entirely new model of robot that would move and manipulate objects much less crudely than Stretch. “It’s going to be a decade or two decades before we have hands that are anything like human hands,” he said. “I need to pick a manipulation problem that’s doable in the next five years.”
“To Boston Dynamics’ credit, they are developing robots to solve real problems,” said WPI’s Michael Gennert. “Useful beats cool every time.”
What’s even farther out? The Amazon TV series “The Peripheral,” based on a William Gibson novel, posits a future when people can be “telepresent” inside a robot instead of physically visiting far-off places. Playter said it’s a concept he’s thinking about with Hyundai.
“In the old days, mobility was just having a car,” Playter said. “Going forward, mobility might mean you have a robot go someplace instead of you. ... Maybe you can be in more than one place at a time?”
It will, at the least, make a great YouTube video.