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Robots Showcase Electrical Engineering Innovations

Image courtesy of Spencer Chin leadspotphoto.jpg
DesignCon keynote speaker Devin Billings of Boston Dynamics interacts with the Spot robot.
Live robot in DesignCon keynote session highlights myriad advances in electronics components and software.

The subject of robotics is normally enough to raise eyebrows in any story or setting, but when it is brought to life with a live robot appearance, the story is brought to life. That was the case at the Wednesday DesignCon keynote session, “Enabling Autonomous Robots.”

Keynote session speaker Devin Billings of Boston Dynamics discussed how advances in electronics made it possible for the company to develop several robots that do more than repetitive motion. They can be programmed to quickly change direction, flip over, retrieve something it missed, and even dance a bit.

At DesignCon, Boston Dynamics brought along its Spot robot and put it through its paces. While the packed audience made it difficult to film Spot in action, an older action video of the robot can be seen here.

For Billings, developing robots is a passion he has pursed at Boston Dynamics since joining the company in 2009. At the time, the company, which was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992, was at the end of the Big Dog project, the first legged robot from the company. 

The company has developed several robots. Spot, the robot demonstrated at DesignCon, is used for autonomous data collection and inspection. Spot employs lots of sensors, multi-gigabit network, vision, and kinematic sensing. It creates a 3D map to find good step and bad step regions to know where to navigate.

Image courtesy of Spencer Chinspotrobotstanding.jpg

Spot robot acknowledges the packed audience at the DesignCon keynote session.

Another robot, Stretch, is used for flexible warehouse automation. It is equipped with a custom gripper and can lift and manipulate boxes weighing up to 50 lb.

Boston Dynamics’ flagship robot is Atlas, which Billings said is a cutting-edge research platform used to develop and demonstrate new robot capabilities.

Billings considers Atlas to be Boston Dynamics’ best example of cutting-edge electronics and wielectromechanical advances. According to Billings, Atlas has no less than 38 hydraulic valves—used to help sense joint angles, motor commutate position, joint torques, external forces, motor stator currents, and hydraulic pressure. Atlas also has a number of microcontrollers to process a vast amount of data, and lithium-ion battery packs.

Ongoing electronics should only further improve robot capabilities, according to Billings. For instance, neural network advances will enable future robots to identify objects and figure out what to do next.

Spencer Chin is a Senior Editor for Design News covering the electronics beat. He has many years of experience covering developments in components, semiconductors, subsystems, power, and other facets of electronics from both a business/supply-chain and technology perspective. He can be reached at [email protected]

TAGS: Automation
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