On June 21, Hyundai Motor Group, Boston Dynamics, Inc., and SoftBank Group Corp. announced the acquisition of Boston Dynamics by Hyundai for over $1.1 billion. What does this merger mean for the future of robotics and mobility?
Boston Dynamics is a robotics firm that aims to create mobile robots to enrich people’s lives and streamline everyday interactions. Founded in 1992 by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University professor Mark Raibert, the company emphasizes nature-- and legs-- in its designs. One of their most well-known creations, Spot, mimics the design of a dog. While at CMU, Raibert founded the Leg Lab, which later moved with Raibert to MIT, and aimed to create more dynamic and mobile robots through the use of mechanical legs.
Hyundai is a multi-billion dollar motor company based in South Korea. In late 2019, they announced Strategy 2025, which aims to “foster Smart Mobility Device and Smart Mobility Service as two core business pillars.” These pillars focus on extending smart mobility past automobiles and into Personal Air Vehicles and robotics, as well as offering more personalized mobility services. Together, these pillars aim to establish the group as a Smart Mobility Solution Provider by 2025.
Smart Mobility is a rising movement that aims to create technologies that act as intelligent transportation and enhance transportation convenience. Hyundai’s proposed Purpose Built Vehicle, or PBV, is a “self-driving urban mobility allowing personalization to cater to diverse lifestyles.” The PBV concept is not just a transport hub, but also a social hub, as it can act as a lounge, restaurant, coffee shop, hotel, or even a health clinic, according to Hyundai’s press release.
Not all smart mobility innovations are as far out as the PBV, however. The Shucle, a combination of the words shuttle and circle, is an artificial intelligence-based ride pooling service in South Korea. The service locates individuals with similar destinations and picks them up, delivering them to their ultimate location together. The system uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to determine the most efficient routes to each individual and to the destination, allowing for more convenient and shorter travel.
Hyundai’s purchase of Boston Dynamics is yet another step on their path toward becoming a Smart Mobility Solution Provider.
Like Hyundai, Boston Dynamics’ technologies have always emphasized the beauty of mobility. Their most recent viral robotic sensation is Spot, a dog-like robot that is designed to move on diverse terrain. It has 360-degree vision thanks to its five sensor modules and is especially effective at monitoring spaces and collecting data remotely. Since its launch, the Spot has been deployed in a variety of locations, from mines to oil rigs to construction sites.
The Atlas is the company’s experiment in whole-body mobility, and is the world's most dynamic humanoid robot. Complex algorithms create highly dynamic motions that involve the whole body, allowing the Atlas to somersault, twist in mid-air, and more. Its incredible mobility makes it ideal for search and rescue missions, which it was originally designed for under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge.
In 2017, Boston Dynamics uploaded a now-viral video of the Atlas doing a backflip, and numerous high jumps, widely considered to be one of the most incredible advances in the world of robotic agility. Atlas is designed to be lightweight to improve its agility, and it has numerous 3-D printed “body” parts that allow it to make its parkour moves and flips a reality.
These robots go far beyond being modern marvels in the way of mobility— we’re seeing them used right now to better society and make the public safer. In Singapore last May, the Spot robot was implemented in public parks to ensure that individuals remained socially distant. Thanks to its advanced movement abilities, Spot can patrol a two-mile stretch of the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park and “bark” whenever it identifies individuals coming too close.
Spot is also playing a big role in helping with recovery from nuclear disasters. The Chernobyl Reactor 4, which had a nuclear meltdown in 1986, is now covered in the New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure, which contains the remains of the reactor, along with, “30 tons of highly contaminated dust, 16 tons of uranium and plutonium, and 200 tons of radioactive lava.”
A Spot robot belonging to the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority has been equipped with radiation sensors and is being used to map out the relative levels of radiation in different parts of the containment area. Spot’s legged nature makes it especially beneficial to the challenge: since the core contains so much radioactive dust, having “legs” instead of wheels or tracks minimizes contact with the dust and can prevent further contamination of the environment. For more on Boston Dynamics’ robotic abilities, check out our latest video: What can you do with a Boston Dynamics robot?
Under the deal, Hyundai and Boston Dynamics anticipate that their combined manufacturing strengths will allow for mutual growth. Boston Dynamics is well known for its manufacturing advances. Their most recent robot, Stretch, is designed specifically to increase the efficiency of packing and unloading materials.
So will this acquisition lead to a robot army in the mobility industry?
Not yet, but it provides incredible potential for advancing transport and movement.
Their video announcing the acquisition depicts a blind man using the Spot as a seeing eye dog of sorts, which is made possible by the robot’s wide-angle vision, data mapping, and sensors. Similar technology has been experimented on at the University of California, Berkeley using the Mini Cheetah, a small animal-like robot created at MIT’s Biomimetics Lab. The Mini Cheetah uses a series of lasers to identify objects in the surrounding environment and guide a person around them. Additionally, the Mini Cheetah can store data on the intended destination, allowing it to map out the easiest and safest route. It was also the first four-legged robot to do a backflip.
Robots also have applications for helping paralyzed individuals walk. These robots, often referred to as exoskeletons, attach to joints to supplement muscle strength and allow the body to “walk.” Recent advances in technology have even allowed people to control the motions with just their brain.
In 2019, researchers at the University of Grenoble, France, placed electrodes on top of the brain of a man, who became paralyzed after breaking his neck in a fall. The electrodes recorded brain signals that control motor functions. These signals are decoded by algorithms that are sent to the exoskeleton, allowing the patient to walk, move objects, and more.
The patient, known as Thibault, practiced by first trying to move an avatar shaped like the exoskeleton on a computer. Then he was strapped into the suit and was able to make it walk forwards, while supported from overhead.
Researchers' next step is to make the exoskeleton self-supporting. Once this is successful, the power of the exoskeleton, in conjunction with the mobility expertise from Hyundai and Boston Dynamics’ creations like the Atlas, could be revolutionary in providing mobility to individuals from this partnership.