After a quarter-century of fiddling in the lab, Boston Dynamics is finally going to find out if there is a market for its quirky but highly sophisticated creature-like robots.
The Waltham robot maker is taking orders for Spot, a four-legged robot that can go places where other robots — and even some people — fear to tread, such as a landscape covered in rubble. The company is targeting early adopters in the construction industry, as well as oil and gas producers and public safety agencies, where the robot’s sensors and cameras can be used as job-site monitors or enter locations that are unsafe for humans.
Spot is the first robot the company has brought to market in its 27-year history, but instead of being for sale, the machines will be leased. Boston Dynamics has yet to reveal a price, but Michael Perry, vice president of business development, said in an e-mail that “the total cost of the early adopter program lease will be less than the price of a car — but how nice a car will depend on the number of Spots leased and how long the customer will be leasing the robot.”
Boston Dynamic has become expert in showing off its robot inventions in highly produced videos, and a new one on its website shows Spot strolling through heaps of construction debris, walking down a flight of stairs, opening a door with an optional manipulator arm, and even walking through pouring rain without shorting out.
“Its entertainment value is already very obvious,” said Jing Xiao, head of the robotics engineering program at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “But because it’s so versatile in going over all kinds of terrain, it can be very useful for applications such as search and rescue.”
Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 as a spinoff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has mainly subsisted on military research contracts. Search engine giant Google acquired the company in 2013, but four years later sold it to its current owner, the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.
The company is a pioneer in the development of robots that walk on legs rather than running around on wheels or caterpillar treads. Teaching a robot to walk is far more complicated, but the result is a machine that can go places other robots can’t, such as a battlefield or inside an earthquake-damaged building.
In 2013, Boston Dynamics unveiled Atlas, a human-shaped, two-legged machine designed for search-and-rescue operations in dangerous environments. Since then, the company has dramatically improved the robot’s performance. A video released Tuesday showed an Atlas doing somersaults and back flips.
Spot is a successor to a far larger four-legged machine called BigDog that the company began developing in 2009. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency solicited proposals for a machine that could walk alongside soldiers like a pack mule, carrying hundreds of pounds of gear. BigDog used a small gasoline engine as a power source, making it too noisy for covert military operations. The project was scrubbed, but Boston Dynamics learned a lot about how to make a robot walk over all kinds of terrain.
That know-how is now built into Spot, which is small enough to run on a rechargeable, removable battery pack, such as those used in power tools. Spot has a battery life of about 90 minutes. It can walk at 3 miles per hour, carry a payload of 30 pounds, is water- and dust-resistant, and uses stereo cameras to avoid running into people and obstacles.