The name Boston Dynamics may seem a bit generic, but the company’s creations are anything but. Founded in 1992, the company has become one of the most recognizable robotics firms in the world. Specializing in the study of locomotion, Boston Dynamics draws on the mechanics of flesh and blood bodies for inspiration. The resulting robots are often impressive and just a bit uncanny in their movements.
The company has designed several robots for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and other military agencies, but the company’s profile has risen thanks to several videos showing off its robot in action, which tend to garner millions of views and a great deal of press coverage. BD was acquired by Google in 2013 as part of the tech titan’s expansion into robotics and other arcane projects.
As of 2016, after the relationship between BD and Google apparently soured, Google has put the company up for sale. The future of Boston Dynamics is unknown, but given its astounding body of work, someone will undoubtedly be interested in acquiring them. For now, we can explore their diverse menagerie of machines, the cute, the creepy, the awe-inspiring.
BigDog and LS3
One of the most famous Boston Dynamics creations, the BigDog is a large quadruped designed to carry equipment across rugged terrain. A mere three feet long, the BigDog was designed to carry up to 340 lbs. of equipment. It also runs at 4 mph and even climbs slopes of up to 35 degrees. The BigDog is remarkably capable of staying upright; when kicked, it stumbles a few feet before regaining its composure. This is thanks not only to its articulated legs but also an onboard computer which keeps track of joint positions, pressure on joints, and other factors. As a result, the BigDog adjusts its gait to walk on flat earth or trudge through snow depending on the situation.
Its eventual successor, the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), is capable of carrying a heavier load (up to 400 lbs.) and enough fuel for a 20-mile trek. Funded by DARPA — which makes sense — the agency conceived them to theoretically assist squads trekking over long stretches of rough terrain. Unfortunately, the project eventually became shelved. After repeated testing by the U.S. Marine Corps, the LS3 was deemed too noisy for actual combat operations, as it could potentially give away a squad’s position.
Who is that man, strutting on a treadmill in the latest experimental hazard suit? ‘Tis no man at all, but Petman. Designed to test how chemical protection suits hold up under various human movements, Petman is an anthropomorphic robot created to perform various human movements such as walking, squatting, and even flexing. Like most of Boston Dynamics’ creations, it has the ability to move without assistance while keeping itself balanced.
Weirdly enough, Petman does not just move like a human, it sweats like one. Petman has a tool to regulate the temperature and humidity inside suits, simulating the conditions an actual human body might produce under the same circumstances.
Named for the Titan who held the world on his shoulders, Atlas is a humanoid robot built to walk, climb, and hoist objects. Standing 5’9” and weighing 180 lbs., Atlas strikes an imposing figure. Walking on two legs, the robot deftly strides across flat or uneven terrain, using its hands to open doors or grab objects. If pushed, Atlas boasts the capability to steady itself and if knocked over, it even pushes itself back up. If there are large objects like trees in the way, Atlas simply scales them.
Atlas’ hands are useful for more than just grabbing and lifting. With various points of articulation, this robot even uses basic tools. Using onboard LIDAR and stereo sensors, Atlas navigates environments entirely on its own and identifies specific objects.
Cheetah and WildCat
Clocking in at 28.3 mph on a treadmill, BD’s Cheetah model is possibly the fastest running robot in the world. In keeping with the animal theme that runs through many of its projects, BD modeled this robot on the physiology of actual cheetahs. It features a slender, flexible spine which stretches and contracts, allowing the robot to take longer steps. Unfortunately, Cheetah required a tether to keep it centered and operational.
Cheetah’s successor, the WildCat, is much bulkier and a bit slower (topping out at 19 mph), but it does also operate without a tether or any other form of assistance. The WildCat gallops, bounds, and even turns, allowing it much more freedom than the Cheetah.
Named for the genus of amphipods one may sometimes see hopping on beaches, SandFlea is a small, four-wheeled robot capable of leaping 30 feet into the air. Weighing in at only 11 lbs., the SandFlea uses a powerful piston actuator to launch itself and its rechargeable battery stores enough energy for 25 jumps.
The SandFlea also has an onboard camera, allowing its operator to navigate it remotely and a computer which automatically keeps the robot stable during flight. Small enough to fit in a backpack, SandFlea has the potential to function as a scout, useful for urban military operations.
One of Boston Dynamic’s many experiments with building robots to traverse harsh terrain, RHex has six spinning legs that allow it to roll over pretty much any landscape imaginable. This small robot easily climbs over rocks and also trudges through mud or snow. Its sealed body allows it to move through wet environments without damage while its armored frame makes it resilient in case it falls down a slope.
The RHex has front and rear-facing cameras and can be controlled remotely from a range of nearly 2300 feet. This makes it an excellent tool for scouting and exploring various environments.
Modeled on a lizard, the RiSE model uses tiny claws in its six feet to climb surfaces without any tether required. With a small frame (it weighs roughly 4.5 lbs.) and powerful motors controlling each limb, RiSE climbs various surfaces, including trees and even stone walls. For those terrified that a robotic lizard might chase them up a building, fear not. RiSE only moves at a pace of about 0.3 m/s. RiSE is controlled by an onboard computer and possesses numerous sensors to keep track of its joints and any pressure on them.
This tiny robot cannot carry heavy loads like its BigDog cousin but it does serve a valuable purpose nonetheless. LittleDog’s small body contains a computer and various sensors capable of recording and transmitting information on the angles of its joints, pressure on them, and the robot’s orientation, among other things. Its highly articulated legs allow for various motions small and large which grant scientists the ability to use the LittleDog to study various aspects of locomotion on a wide range of surfaces.
One of Boston Dynamics’ more recent creations, Spot is a lithe, four-legged robot with highly flexible legs. It weighs 160 lbs. and navigates both indoor and outdoor environments. Like many BD robots, it also maintains its balance when kicked.
The SpotMini is, as the name would suggest, is a smaller version of the robot, weighing 65 lbs. with its arm attached. The arm is one of the most recognizable parts of the SpotMini. It gives it the appearance of a skeletal giraffe while the head is actually more like a hand. The arm is highly flexible and the SpotMini uses it to grasp and move objects.
The SpotMini is shockingly quiet as it moves — at least, relative to other robots like the LS3 — and it has a great range of motion. Flexible limbs allow Spot to move easily through various spaces, even crouching to walk under tables. Various sensors within the robot allow it to move and interact with objects autonomously.