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I wrote about Ben Gu's keynote from DesignCon earlier this week in my post DesignCon: Ben Gu's Keynote.
Today it is the turn of Devin Billings of Boston Dynamics.
Devin's keynote was titled Enabling Autonomous Robotic Capability. He admitted that it was the first time he'd been invited to give a keynote, hiding out in the back room is more his style. But one thing about working for Boston Dynamics is that you have lots of great videos to work with. However, the big question was whether he had brought an actual robot with him.
He started with a history of Boston Dynamics. It was founded 30 years ago in 1992 at MIT. It has been developing robots for those 30 years and has sold over 1000. It developed Big Dog from 2005-2009, that Devin worked on. Then Hyundai acquired Boston Dynamics in 2021. Today they have over 500 employees. Atlas is a bipedal robot with a human-like power-to-weight ratio. This is the robot I'm sure you've seen in many of the latest videos.
For those of us that are not in the market for a robot, Boston Dynamics is most famous for its YouTube videos showing its robots doing amazing things such as parkour, or dancing, or, the most recent one, throwing a heavy bag up onto a platform before doing a backflip and twist dismount. I featured this just a couple of weeks ago in my post 2023 Update: Automotive Security, Chiplets...and Roman Emperors! but I'll include it again at the end of this post.
Devin gave us a tutorial on actuators. There are two choices: hydraulic or electric. Hydraulics are best for outdoor systems, especially if they can be powered by a gas engine. That's not going to happen indoors, and there electric actuators are the best. They are simpler, but they are not good at holding things statically (like a heavy box) since they require continuous electrical power to hold a weight without moving, unlike hydraulic systems where you can just close a valve and the robot can stand there for hours without consuming power.
Devin brought on Spot, the electrically activated dog. Spot walked down the stairs from the back of the auditorium, turned around about two feet from me (I was sitting in the front row) and then walked up the steps onto the stage. The reason for turning round was that the cameras on the back are optimized for looking up and so for going upstairs. The cameras on the front are optimized for looking ahead or down, and so optimized for going downstairs.
On the stage, Spot showed how it can walk over a ladder without putting its feet anywhere stupid. See the image at the end of this post.
In fact, we got a look inside Spot's head with the image above. The green areas are where Spot considers it safe to put a foot. The red areas are unsafe. It is also self-aware, in the sense that it knows where it is located and where its limbs are.
In this picture, you can see how Atlas is planning where its feet are going to go. Note that these are never exact, since Atlas might be walking across unstable wooden blocks (we saw a video of that) and, like all of us when we walk, we don't predict where our feet will fall and the unevenness of the path to millimeter accuracy.
Spot is not just a novelty for showing off at keynotes. It has two pod bays on its back with power and Ethernet, where cameras or other sorts of monitors can be installed. Devin had a video of it inspecting a building (the Boston Dynamics office) for fire extinguishers: were they there or missing, were they accessible or blocked, and so on. In fact, there are lots of environments, such as inspecting electrical substations, where robots are better than humans. To inspect an electrical substation with a human, it has to be powered off for safety reasons, which is not great if you are in the business of supplying reliable power. But a robot is expendable in the worst case, so it is not necessary to power down the substation. Obviously, anywhere with radioactivity, unsafe buildings after an earthquake, and similar scenarios, are not just something that Spot can do instead of a human (like inspect fire extinguishers) but something only Spot can do, and a human cannot.
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