Boston Dynamics talks fluid power, 3D printing at IFK
More than 650 fluid power manufacturers, users and academics came to Aachen, Germany last month to talk about the future of hydraulics and pneumatics technology at the 11th IFK.
Aaron Saunders, VP of Engineering of Boston Dynamics gave a memorable keynote address. Boston Dynamics is the Massachusetts dynamo of a company that even many non-engineers know about, due to the company’s famous YouTube videos that feature bipedal and animal-like robots that jump, run, balance and even do backflips.
Saunders talk focused on building “the world’s most dynamic” humanoid robot—the famed Atlas, which has been through a redesign in recent years. Saunders noted that Boston Dynamics is a very small company, with only 100 engineers. For the last 15 years, he said that his team has been focusing on basic principles of the mechanics of the locomotion of robotics. Their goal has been on changing people’s idea of what robots can do.
“I’m always asked, ‘What’s the purpose? Are you making any money with this?’ The answer is no,” Saunders said, to laughs from the audience. “This robot’s [purpose] is really to drive innovation inside our group, to push us to understand how to marry controls on complex machines. It is also to create an impression of what robots can do. As we move toward the future, we’re getting closer and closer to when we’re going to turn these things into products.”
People also ask Saunders why they are making robots perform tasks such as making them jump. He explained that it forces his team to face a lot of pragmatic problems. In tasks such as jumping, there is a lot of coordination happening—in the upper body, in the legs and the feet. His videos showed the robot’s hands and arms moving to better stabilize itself, and its legs wobble when it landed on soft ground, far different than laboratory conditions.
This is on purpose, he said. “The other thing we do with a lot of the robots at Boston Dynamics that’s kind of unique is we put them out in the real world. Robots in their history have almost always been in the lab environment.”
“In these environments, the robots have to autonomously navigate the terrain,” he said, as another video showed a robot walking up an uneven set of stone steps in a parklike setting. “The only inputs that this robot is getting right now from the operator are simple joystick commands, like go forward, go left or right, and everything else comes autonomously from the control system.”
Evolution of Atlas
The journey that Boston Dynamics took in getting to this robot did not happen overnight. They started in 2009, literally sawing one of their quadrupeds in half to make an early biped robot, as they worked on a government project that used pneumatics. This robot was tethered for power and cooling.
“In 2012, there was a big competition started in the U.S. to use mobile robots to use in disaster response scenarios, and the government asked them to build 10 robots to give to universities to learn how to access these difficult trends,” he said.
Boston Dynamics used a lot of off-the-shelf components to put this hydraulic robot together, which was a 2-m tall robot that was self-contained and weighed nearly 200kg.
“In 2015, we got the opportunity—when we were acquired by Google—to really look inside and focus on things that we thought were important. We used the opportunity to redesign this humanoid robot from the ground up, and we ended up with a robot that’s very similar. It has all the same strength and range of mobility.”
This newer Atlas model is about 1.5 meters tall and weighs 80 kg. It has an increased strength density to near human levels, is completely power autonomous (running between 30-60 minutes, depending on what it is doing) and has 28 degrees of freedom.
“Cramming 28 active degrees of freedom that all do force control, position control, and high bandwidth into a small machine is actually quite challenging,” Saunders said.
Valves were a problem to source. They found, as their scale got smaller and smaller, and moved down to the human scale, there really weren’t many choices to purchase a high-performance servovalves that they could use to do control. So, they developed their own, which features multiple modes, for traditional servo, braking (negative work) and coasting (chamber to chamber). The valve, he said, has a fast response time and extremely low bypass leakage. (continued in issue)
Paul J. Heney
VP, Editorial Director