Adorable for some, terrifying for others. Presented last year, the SpotMini robot will be available for sale next year. “It will initially be aimed at businesses, but it can eventually be used at home,” promises Marc Raibert, the general manager of the American company Boston Dynamics, interviewed last week during a conference organized by the site specialized Techcrunch.
SpotMini is inspired by a dog. With four legs, the robot can move sideways, climb stairs or avoid obstacles. Thanks to several sensors and cameras, it is able to move autonomously. Accessories can be attached to one’s back, such as an articulated arm to open doors or grab small objects. SpotMini weighs 60 kilos. Electric, it can work for 90 minutes between recharging of its batteries.
Not Yet Prices
Its selling price has not yet been communicated. According to Raibert, the latest prototype is ten times cheaper to produce than the previous one. “And we still think we can do better,” he says. The manufacturer plans to produce a hundred pre-production units this year, before increasing the rates in 2019. At launch, SpotMini mainly targets the surveillance market, on which there are already some robots much less sophisticated. “Spot Mini can go to inspect the stairwells,” says his boss.
The device will be the first commercial product of Boston Dynamics. The company, founded 26 years ago by former researchers at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is currently working on a dozen projects. They are mostly inspired by animals, such as the cheetah robot that gallops at nearly 50 km / h and jumps over obstacles. His videos, regularly posted on YouTube, show significant progress. And do not fail to raise serious fears.
In 2013, the company was bought by Google, which had just launched a division specializing in robotics. But the search engine has abandoned its ambitions in the field, because of revenue prospects considered too distant and uncertain. Available for sale, Boston Dynamics passed into the hands of Softbank in June 2017. The Japanese conglomerate markets several robots, such as Pepper, a small humanoid responsible for welcoming visitors or customers.
Impact more important than internet
Boston Dynamics is also designing a humanoid robot called Atlas. He is able to walk alone, open doors, lift packages, resist a person who pushes him and get up alone after a fall. And he is also intelligent: he knows how to adapt when the package he has to raise is deliberately moved. The company was also developing models for military use, but their future is unclear since the abandonment in 2015 of a joint project with the US military.
In fact, the company now seems to focus on the business market. Raibert, however, still recognizes working on the future applications of his robots. The manager counts on his clients and partners. “We will work with them to develop business practices,” he says. Boston Dynamics has also opted for an open ecosystem: other companies will be able to design accessories and software to meet specific needs.
“There are many opportunities,” says Raibert, explaining receiving ideas every day. He quotes the construction sector, on which his robots could for example automatically collect data on construction sites. They could also invite themselves in factories and warehouses or in kitchens, as evidenced by several recent initiatives. For the leader, Spot Mini is, in any case, a beginning. “Robotics will have a bigger impact than the Internet,” he predicts.