Boston Dynamics CEO on being acquired and selling the SpotMini | TC Sessions Robotics 2018

Boston Dynamics’ rocked the world with the DARPA-funded Big Dog, and founder Marc Raibert showed off its latest creation, the SpotMini at TC Sessions Robotics 2018 at UC Berkeley.

So it’s been it’s been what about a year And a half I think since we did one of These yep At the time Boston Dynamics was a part Of Google I think you were searching for Some new ownership at the time and Couldn’t really talk about it last time You were on stage but why was Google not A great fit for the company well I don’t Really have an answer to that question But I will say that our time at Google Was time well spent And we got a lot of great work done in My opinion and Google was very good to Us Keeping the work well funded and you’re Gonna see most of the things we talked About today have their origins and Things we did during our four and a half Years at Google so I think that things Were good at Google and now even better That we’re part of Softbank so when Softbank did approach you to acquire the Company what was the pitch what were They looking for in a robotics company Well Softbank is a very future focused Company you know the the founder masa Son has a an immediate plan a ten-year Plan a 30-year plan and a 300 year plan So which one of those do you fit into Well I think that the idea of being Interested in both the long-run and the Immediate at the same time is really Fits great with our mission we are

Building robots that are going to be Useful this year and next year but we I Think to build machines that satisfy our Dreams of what robotics can do you need To be investing in longer-term work and We we’re doing that as well so our plan Is to keep working you know over the Years Boston Dynamics has worked mostly On the future doing R&D and we’re going To keep doing that in a very vigorous Way and at the same time have some of Our effort focused on making products so Let’s say let’s actually play the Atlas Video I think is a good example of Something that might be a little bit Further off when it comes to actually Commercializing the technology so this Is the Atlas humanoid robot and you’ve Seen this doing various things but this Is a piece of footage that we haven’t Shown before where it’s using a vision System to locate the stairs and place Its feet keep its balance one of the Exciting things about Atlas is it brings Together really sophisticated mechanical Design and engineering with computing Controls software and perception so it’s Really equal parts a machine and a Computation applied to that machine and You couldn’t do any of the things we do Without that and that computation has a Roll all the way back in conceptualizing The design making the parts simulating It controlling it perception collecting

Data really everything so here’s a Two-armed manipulation task that’s it About human rates it’s using its vision To locate these boxes as they’re placed In front of them of course an obvious Extension you told he told me as we were Watching this earlier that that always Gets a laugh and you’re not quite sure Why huh did you put that back on please And then this is very recent work we’re Doing on making Atlas run there’s a lot Of dynamics and energetics in the Control to make that work and that work Grew out of this which is a kind of Simpler jumping but still very energetic Lots of dynamic controls perception so I Think this is a particularly interesting Example of what you do because obviously You know there are some far-off Practical applications there but you’re Also showing some real-world usage so You’re showing the Atlas in a fake Warehouse setting moving boxes when You’re designing you know a very Sophisticated bipedal humanoid robot Like this are you thinking about those Practical applications we are I’m I Don’t want to say that Atlas has an Immediate short-term money-making Application but we definitely use it to Develop pieces of technology that can be Applied to short-range things for Instance using two arms to manipulate Coordinated with the body is something

That can be used in simpler machines for Applications so this machine this work Is really trying to push the boundary on The future but we are harvesting Component technologies that are used for Other things There are also pieces of the mechanical Design the way the hydraulics and the Valves and the power supply I don’t have Time to talk about them now if you ask Me later I can tell you in but those Components can really play a role in Many practical applications today is it Safe to say that there’s been a bit of a Shift in focus in terms of your your Go-to-market strategy I mean it seems to Me as though first being a part of Google and now being a part of Softbank That it’s perhaps Linda lit a bit of a Fire underneath you to actually create a Marketable device I won’t call it a Shift it’s an addition Focus so I think before we were part of Google we were mostly doing blue sky Google got us interested in figuring out What some applications might be and we Reconfigured some of the robots the spot Mini robot the small quadruped ed is one That was motivated by thinking about Something that could go in an office in A more you know accessible place for Business applications or in a home Eventually so we definitely started Thinking about that as part of Google

And clearly in our current role we’re Trying to maintain our R&D focus while We develop a very applied product focus So you I mean you mentioned spot many as An example of this is this a device that We’re going to is this going to be on The market at some point in the near Future will I be able to buy a spot mini For my office yes so spot mini is in Pre-production now we’ve built 10 units That’s a design that’s close to a Manufacturer we’ll design we built them In-house but with help from contract Manufacturer type people we have a plan Later this year to build a hundred with Connor contract manufacturers and that’s The prelude to getting them into a Higher rate production which we hope to Start about the middle of next year and We are also working with Proof-of-concept customers that is go to Market people who are have applications That we’re going to test these robots in This year with the idea that we’ll be Selling them into those applications Next to you I’d love to actually play The spot mini video that we have because This is a good example of I think what Can be done with the robot and this is a Relatively recent skill that I think You’ve only just shown off for the first Time in the last couple of days yes this Video we posted to YouTube yesterday Afternoon you could here just use your

Marination of what a robot would look Like walking I don’t know why it’s not Showing there we go there we go and this Robot is using cameras that are faced Forward backward and to the two sides in Order to navigate through this space we Drove it through the space manually to Build the map and it collect the data it Built the map itself and now it can Travel where there’s map data by Localizing itself in Math it also uses the same cameras to Look for obstacles so here it’s treating The stairs not exactly is obstacles but It can see the steps and orient itself With them it knows it can’t bump into The railings if you look at that insert And the lower left the brown things are Things where it shouldn’t go and so the Motion planning work all the software is Taking into account where the obstacles Are where the green good places to go Are and coming up with motion control All in real time doing the lots of high Performance software execution as we go We’re really expanding this part of our Operation to have more people and more Expertise in software perception and Building that part out to match the Hardware design that we already are Pretty extra now I imagine that the Focus has shifted a little bit to some Degree in terms of you know developing This I suspect this was a very expensive

Robot to develop and if you’re actually Going to create a commercial version of It you have to figure out how to bring The cost down do you have a specific Price point in mind of how much it’s Going to cost me to buy a spot mini from My office we’re not saying what the Price point is yet but I’ll tell you That this prototype which if you just Looked at it you couldn’t tell the Difference from the previous one but It’s about a 10 times reduction in cost And we think we can go further but we Are trading reliability performance Costs there’s a lot of factors in making This successful as a product and we’re Working on all of those I think one Thing that you haven’t really spoken to You before is the idea of this robot Specifically as a platform so you know Taking a PC or a mobile phone as an Example and applying it to this so we’ve Got a there’s a box on the top of the Device right that users can essentially Install some sort of third-party apps on Yeah so the concept of spot mini is it’s A hardware and software platform and the Robot is flat on the top with mounting Plates on it where you can mount your Hardware but there’s also a network Connection and API so that your software Can talk to its software And you can develop third parties can Develop applications for it we are

Developing our own applications for it That we probably will use as reference Designs in the early phases so for Instance we have a surveillance package Where we have special cameras low-light Cameras that can mount on the back There’ll be a camera that goes in the Arm it didn’t show an arm there and then That computer is one that’s designed to Take user code as opposed to the code That’s running in the robot why don’t we Bring out the robot sure let’s let’s Actually see it in action So here’s spot mini and Seth Davis is Operating it it’s not running Autonomously right now although many of The control functions are running on the On-board computer seth is a guy that you Never actually see in the videos but but He’s in every single past video there’s Been sat or someone essentially doing Seth’s job controlling the robot in These videos that we’ve seen this week Are the first time that this has really Been demoed autonomously that’s right So as I said this is a platform the arm Is an extra cost option that you can Take off and that white box is a Computer that really we’re only using Today because it’s got a better radio Than the standard radio and in this Environment where you all have Cellphones and Wi-Fi it’s sometimes a Challenge to get that working so this is

Using a spread spectrum radio that makes It easier the robots on the directional When it came out it was using a Different number of different walking Gates it’s on the directional so Seth Can just using a joystick steer it Around and he’ll will will have the Robot out in the lobby after the talk And if some of you will get a chance to Drive and let me just show a few things On there there’s cameras here there’s Two sets of stereo cameras and there’s Also one on the left you want to turn What turn it in place so there’s also One back here there’s a butt cam there’s Another one on this side is that is that A trademark name the buck and we should We should mark the head on that the Joints this is all electric so even Though Atlas has hydraulics Got a quick disconnect battery Underneath which you can’t see here and Again the arm which has similar Technology to the to the legs one of the Things we love to do is show that you Can stabilize the hand while the body Moves and this looks like a kind of a Show-off trick but really this is Important if you’re going to do Manipulation in the world you want to Think about how the hand moves and not Worry about the body and I can do that I Can touch Brian over here on his Shoulder and I can move my body all

Around and still my forces between me And Brian are are pretty modest and so We’re building up that to do mobile Manipulation and and other tricks so We’re not doing autonomous control but You’ll see that the sensors can be used To go over simple obstacles so the robot Is looking ahead and seeing these and Using quadratic programming in order to Plan its footsteps so that it goes over Smoothly you can see it it arches the Body up a little bit in advance there it Missed the thing a little bit you want To go over sideways this is riskier but For you so that because we have camera Or you can go backwards if you want if Because we have cameras on the side it Can see the box and step over you notice That the back legs stepped up and the Front legs didn’t in that case thank you Seth thank you spot So I have to ask you you know as we’re Talking about these practical Applications for a robot like this and Does this really make sense as a Security robot obviously we’ve seen a Number of companies develop these Wheeled robots these are out in the World right now patrolling areas you Know why is somebody going to invest in Such a sophisticated robot you know I Think people think that most places are Easy to get around with wheeled things But it’s really not the case almost

Every place you go has some obstacle That wheeled things struggle with in Fact though there’s also applications That really take advantage of legs such As going in a skyscraper up the Stairwells checking for things left There that shouldn’t be there you can Imagine bad things left there and we’re Talking to people who want to use our Robots to go do those tests you can Imagine people wouldn’t you might not Like going up and down the stairs in a 20-story building if you had to use your Own legs on it and do it you know three Times a day or something but the robots Could do that but even short of that Most places have something where wheels Don’t really get you everywhere and we Think spot mini can go to a much larger Fraction of places this seems like a Case though where you know you’ve Developed it you developed these robots A while ago obviously the earliest Robots you were developing were for the Military you know big dog was a pack Robot you’ve sinks trunking it down it’s Got an electric motor now but I was Security really an application that had Occurred to you from the beginning it Was on the short list it’s only one you Know we’re also looking at construction In construction construction where as Productivity in other areas has Consistently gone up if you look at

Construction it’s almost flat no Technology has really been brought to Bear to help so the people who are Developing that are really hungry for Help and there’s BIM Building Information Management data that they Want to collect automatically there’s Update status reports that you can do so The application is very much like the Industrial Security one where Want to go around and use your sensors In order to assess what’s going on but Here it’s in a process where the Environments are changing everyday the Terrain is very varied depending on what The construction site is like and so That’s another one but you know people Send us ideas for applications these Robots every day one that we get lots of Requests for is a wheelchair replacement Because someone hasn’t been able to go You know out on a hiking trail in their Normal wheelchair and they wonder if we Could build a legged one we’re not Actively working on that yet but I think It’s you know and there’s many other Things so when you talk about blue Skying technology over at Boston Dynamics and you’re developing these Robots I mean is it important that it Has some sort of inherent real-world Value to it I think that we don’t want To let immediate ROI constrain our Thinking for everything and so that’s

Why we have the two thrusts the shoot Over the horizon make the future happen For us as well as the take available Technology and you know spot minis Available technology and work on Applying it work on cost reducing it Making it more reliable making it more Usable you know user interface make the Software better and see what you can do But you know robotics isn’t like some Fields where the the applications are Are all well known and worked out you Know so we’re we’re simultaneously Figuring out what the use cases are While we’re developing the technology Well you know you’ve had defied quite a Long lead time in terms of you know Starting the company actually creating It a commercialized product it’s been About 25 years at this point I saw a talk you gave recently where you Said you expect that you know robots are Going to become essentially as Ubiquitous as the internet moving Forward I said bigger than bigger than the Internet more ubiquitous that you know How far out is that vision well the idea Is that the internet lets you touch all The information in the world but robots Especially if you combine it with the Internet let you touch everything in the World and manipulate it and so you know That’s a bigger idea it’s gonna take a

Long time to get to bigger than the Internet but I do think the impact of Robots could be vast and I’m you know We’re working hard on making it happen As well as a lot of other people some of Them you have here at TechCrunch today Great mark thank you so much thank you [Applause]

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