It’s been a hell of a two days for Boston Dynamics’ fantastical quadruped robot SpotMini. Yesterday, it starred in a new video that may seem, well, a bit ho-hum at first glance—at least compared to the company’s other recent reveals. The robot doesn’t open doors for its friends or fight off a human assailant brandishing a hockey stick. It simply traipses down corridors, through doorways, and up a staircase. Yet within that short journey lies a tantalizing detail about SpotMini the robot dog.
Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert followed that up today at the TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics conference at UC Berkeley with surprising news for the secretive company: SpotMini is coming to market, and soon. The company is planning to build 100 units later this year.
“That's the prelude to getting them into a higher rate production,” Raibert said on stage, “which we hope to start about the middle of next year.” He declined to disclose the price, but did say the machine in the most recent video is about 10 times cheaper to produce than a previous iteration. “And we think we can go further,” Raibert said.
Boston Dynamics has long been research-focused, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been thinking about what consumers want out of SpotMini. For one, buyers will be able to mount their own hardware on SpotMini’s back, Raibert said. Boston Dynamics is also working on its own add-on packages. “For instance, we have a surveillance package where we have special cameras that can mount on the back,” he said. And that famous arm that helped the robot open the door for its friend? That’s an extra option that’ll be removable.
Notably, the new video helps explain how Boston Dynamics is getting SpotMini to operate autonomously. According to the video’s description, an operator first manually drives the robot around its surroundings, as the machine captures the view with cameras on its sides and front and back. Then when SpotMini is unleashed to walk the same route on its own, it uses that captured visual data to get its bearings. Self-driving car companies get their machines rolling in much the same way. First, they map routes with lidar, which sprays the road and trees and such with lasers to build a 3-D model of the world. That helps give the robocar a better understanding of its surroundings. The difference with SpotMini, though, is that it’s using stereo cameras instead. It’s devoid of the lidar essential to so many robots, Boston Dynamics confirms.
Take a look at the 1:00 mark in the video above. That “Obstacle Avoidance Data” panel at lower left? “That looks like an occupancy grid from a stereo point cloud,” says Kevin Peterson, cofounder and software lead of Marble, which makes autonomous delivery robots. “A stereo point cloud is you have two cameras next to each other, like your eyes.” Thus, stereo vision.
That could give the robot more visual resolution than a lidar system. Lidar is better for some things; its range is greater, and it works better in bright conditions than an optical camera. But “what's interesting here is they are going indoors and outdoors on a reasonably bright day,” says Peterson, “so that means their stereo system is working in pretty bright conditions.”
SpotMini’s predecessor, Spot, was indeed equipped with lidar, but it would make sense for this smaller iteration to ditch lidar in favor of stereo cameras. “On a vehicle that small lidar is challenging, it's extra weight and it's extra power,” says Peterson. “It's just volume that you would rather not take up.”
So SpotMini is destined to see the world more like we do (unless humans start firing lasers out of their eyeballs). And other robotics outfits are exploring ways to get advanced robots to navigate our world with cameras alone. It’s a more energetically efficient way, both in terms of power consumption and bulk, to have increasingly advanced robots make their way around.
“What I take away form this is they're really trying to perfect how they walk through the world,” says Peterson, “and in order to do that they need to understand something about the world.”
And that seems to be working. Boston Dynamics is real close to pushing SpotMini into the real world, only this time without using hockey sticks.
Not to throw shade, but SpotMini has some competition for most impressive robotic feat. Just a few months ago, Boston Dynamics released this video of its two-legged Atlas robot doing … wait for it … a backflip.
Before that, the best it could do was bounce back after a solid kick from a mean-spirited human.
Guys, just in case it's not clear: Please don't kick the robots.