From BigDog to SpotMini: Tracing the evolution of Boston Dynamics robo-dogs

Boston Dynamics makes some of the most badass robotic beasts around. Launched in 1992 as a spin off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the company has created some remarkably sophisticated machines, especially when it comes to replicating animal movements. It took more than a decade for the company’s first robots to emerge from its lab, but since then, Boston Dynamics has positioned itself as a leader in the field, unveiling robots that can sprint faster than Usain Bolt, leap onto buildings, and backflip better than most humans. But its most well-known creations are its canine-inspired robots.

Here’s a list of the evolutionary milestones made by Boston Dynamics, from it’s first iteration of BigDog to the commercialization of SpotMini.

January 2009 — BigDog makes its debut

Boston Dynamics first hit the scene in 2005 with the introduction of a three-foot-long, two-and-a-half-foot-wide, 240-pound robot named BigDog. Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — which specializes in high-risk, high-yield investments — BigDog was designed to be a pack mule for soldiers, capable of carrying 340 pounds, climbing 35-degree inclines, and no doubt striking fear into the heart of opposition.

February 2009 — LittleDog crawls into the spotlight

If BigDog was the size of a beefy Great Dane, LittleDog was unveiled as a scrappy chihuahua. Also funded by DARPA, LittleDog represented the smallest four-legged robot in the Boston Dynamics product line. Powered by lithium polymer batteries, LittleDog had a 30-minute operation limit, could be controlled remotely, and was capable of crawling — albeit slowly — across rocky terrain. Whereas BigDog was built by Boston Dynamics for Boston Dynamics, LittleDog was developed as a testbed for use by third parties.

September 2011 — AlphaDog Proto introduced

When AlphaDog Proto came onto the scene in 2011, Boston Dynamics’ military aspirations became ever more transparent. Thanks to funding from DARPA and the Untied States Marine Corps, AlphaDog Proto was capable of varying a 400-pound payload during a 20-mile mission through varied terrain. An internal combustion engine served to quiet the noisier BigDog — which came with a rather loud rumble — making it more appropriate for missions in the field.

September 2012 — Legged Squad Support System arrives

The next evolution of AlphaDog Proto was the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), which proved more versatile and robust than it’s predecessor. An array of sensors along the LS3 let it follow its human leader, while simultaneously navigating rough terrain to avoid obstacles. If tipped over, the robot could roll itself upright.

February 2013 — BigDog takes on objects

BigDog returned with a new trick in 2013 — arguably its most intimidating to date. This time, equipped with an “arm,” the robot could pick up a 35-pound cinder block and vigorously toss it up to 17 feet behind it. To do so, BigDog was trained to use its legs and torso as leverage, gripping and slinging the rock like a drunken Olympian throwing discus.

February 2015 — Spot

In 2015, Boston Dynamics unveiled it’s latest creation — an electrically powered, hydraulically actuated robot named Spot. At just 160 pounds, Spot was significantly smaller than previous canine-inspired models, and was designed for both indoor and outdoor activities. Sensors in its head allowed it navigate rocky terrain and avoid obstacles in transit. Spot could capably climb stairs and ascend hills, making it more versatile than its beefier forebears.

June 2016 — SpotMini bounds into the spotlight

We got a glimpse of Spot’s little brother, SpotMini, in 2016. Weighing in at 55 pounds, SpotMini was by far the smallest — and most mischievous — Boston Dynamics robot yet. Promoted as all-electric, meaning there were no hydraulics involved, SpotMini boasted 90-minutes of operation on a single charge, a slew of sensors that gave the robot advanced navigation capabilities, and the ability to perform some basic tasks autonomously. SpotMini sported an optional arm and gripper that let it pick up fragile objects and right itself after slipping on a banana peel.

November 2017 — SpotMini gets a makeover

In November 2017, Boston Dynamic introduced the new and improved SpotMini, a yellow robot whose fluid movements showed significant improvement over the more jerky prototype. But it wasn’t until a few months later that the robot’s robustness was demonstrated in a series of videos showing the machine pulling a door open, deftly putting its leg in front, and even working against one of the many Boston Dynamics engineers who seem hellbent on breaking its stride.

May 2018 — SpotMini explores autonomously

A video posted by Boston Dynamics in May of 2018 shows just how far its SpotMini has come. Equipped with a sophisticated navigation system, the robot is able to autonomously navigate through the company’s offices and lab, following a path it had previously mapped out during a manually driven run. This video was soon followed by news that, after nearly three decades, Boston Dynamics will make the SpotMini commercial available in 2019.

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