IEEE Spectrum Automation

IEEE Spectrum
Subscribe to IEEE Spectrum Automation feed IEEE Spectrum Automation

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

RoboCup German Open: 17–21 April 2024, KASSEL, GERMANYAUVSI XPONENTIAL 2024: 22–25 April 2024, SAN DIEGOEurobot Open 2024: 8–11 May 2024, LA ROCHE-SUR-YON, FRANCEICRA 2024: 13–17 May 2024, YOKOHAMA, JAPANRoboCup 2024: 17–22 July 2024, EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS

Enjoy today’s videos!

In the SpaceHopper project, students at ETH Zurich developed a robot capable of moving in low gravity environments through hopping motions. It is intended to be used in future space missions to explore small celestial bodies.

The exploration of asteroids and moons could provide insights into the formation of the universe, and they may contain valuable minerals that humanity could use in the future.The project began in 2021 as an ETH focus project for bachelor’s students. Now, it is being continued as a regular research project. A particular challenge in developing exploration robots for asteroids is that, unlike larger celestial bodies like Earth, there is low gravity on asteroids and moons. The students have therefore tested their robot’s functionality in zero gravity during a parabolic flight. The parabolic flight was conducted in collaboration with the European Space Agency as part of the ESA Academy Experiments Programme.

[ SpaceHopper ]

It’s still kind of wild to me that it’s now possible to just build a robot like Menteebot. Having said that, at present it looks to be a fairly long way from being able to usefully do tasks in a reliable way.

[ Menteebot ]

Look, it’s the robot we all actually want!

[ Github ]

I wasn’t quite sure what made this building especially “robot-friendly” until I saw the DEDICATED ROBOT ELEVATOR.


We are glad to announce the latest updates with our humanoid robot CL-1. In the test, it demonstrates stair climbing in a single stride based on real-time terrain perception. For the very first time, CL-1 accomplishes back and forth running, in a stable and dynamic way!

[ LimX Dynamics ]

EEWOC [Extended-reach Enhanced Wheeled Orb for Climbing] uses a unique locomotion scheme to climb complex steel structures with its magnetic grippers. Its lightweight and highly extendable tape spring limb can reach over 1.2 meters, allowing it to traverse gaps and obstacles much larger than other existing climbing robots. Its ability to bend allows it to reach around corners and over ledges, and it can transition between surfaces easily thanks to assistance from its wheels. The wheels also let it to drive more quickly and efficiently on the ground. These features make EEWOC well-suited for climbing the complex steel structures seen in real-world environments.

[ Paper ]

Thanks to its “buttock-contact sensors,” JSK’s musculoskeletal humanoid has mastered(ish) the chair-scoot.

[ University of Tokyo ]

Thanks, Kento!

Physical therapy seems like a great application for a humaonid robot when you don’t really need that humanoid robot to do much of anything.

[ Fourier Intelligence ]

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter became the first vehicle to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet when it took to the Martian skies on 19 April 2021. This video maps the location of the 72 flights that the helicopter took over the course of nearly three years. Ingenuity far surpassed expectations—soaring higher and faster than previously imagined.

[ JPL ]

No thank you!

[ Paper ]

MERL introduces a new autonomous robotic assembly technology, offering an initial glimpse into how robots will work in future factories. Unlike conventional approaches where humans set pre-conditions for assembly, our technology empowers robots to adapt to diverse scenarios. We showcase the autonomous assembly of a gear box that was demonstrated live at CES2024.

[ Mitsubishi ]

Thanks, Devesh!

In November, 2023 Digit was deployed in a distribution center unloading totes from an AMR as part of regular facility operations, including a shift during Cyber Monday.

[ Agility ]

The PR2 just refuses to die. Last time I checked, official support for it ceased in 2016!

[ University of Bremen ]

DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program has achieved the first-ever in-air tests of AI algorithms autonomously flying a fighter jet against a human-piloted fighter jet in within-visual-range combat scenarios (sometimes referred to as “dogfighting”).In this video, team members discuss what makes the ACE program unlike other aerospace autonomy projects and how it represents a transformational moment in aerospace history, establishing a foundation for ethical, trusted, human-machine teaming for complex military and civilian applications.


Sometimes robots that exist for one single purpose that they only do moderately successfully while trying really hard are the best of robots.

[ CMU ]

The paper delves into the significance of Secure Runtime Assurance (SRTA) for the operational integrity and safety of autonomous robotics groups, with a focus on drones. It presents a comprehensive view of how SRTA has evolved from traditional runtime assurance methods to address the dynamic and complex nature of autonomous systems. Through integrating artificial intelligence and machine learning, SRTA seeks to tackle the multifaceted challenges autonomous systems face, highlighting the need for adaptive, scalable, and secure solutions. Emphasizing a hierarchical approach to decision-making, the paper also highlights the critical role of redundancy in ensuring reliability and anticipates future advancements in RTA technologies. This paper reflects an ongoing effort to harmonize safety and efficiency within regulatory frameworks for autonomous robotics.

Stephen Cass: Hello and welcome to Fixing the Future, an IEEE Spectrum podcast where we look at concrete solutions to tough problems. I’m your host, Stephen Cass, a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. And before I start, I just want to tell you that you can get the latest coverage of some of Spectrum’s most important beats, including AI, climate change, and robotics, by signing up for one of our free newsletters. Just go to to subscribe. We’ve been covering the drone delivery company Zipline in Spectrum for several years, and I do encourage listeners to check out our great onsite reporting from Rwanda in 2019 when we visited one of Zipline’s dispatch centers for delivering vital medical supplies into rural areas. But now it’s 2024, and Zipline is expanding into commercial drone delivery in the United States, including into urban areas, and hitting some recent milestones. Here to talk about some of those milestones today, we have Keenan Wyrobek, Zipline’s co-founder and CTO. Keenan, welcome to the show.

Keenan Wyrobek: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Cass: So before we get into what’s going on with the United States, can you first catch us up on how things have been going on with Rwanda and the other African countries you’ve been operating in?

Wyrobek: Yeah, absolutely. So we’re now operating in eight countries, including here in the US. That includes a handful of countries in Africa, as well as Japan and Europe. So in Africa, it’s really exciting. So the scale is really impressive, basically. As we’ve been operating, started eight years ago with blood, then moved into vaccine delivery and delivering many other things in the healthcare space, as well as outside the healthcare space. We can talk a little bit about in things like animal husbandry and other things. The scale is really what’s exciting. We have a single distribution center there that now regularly flies more than the equivalent of once the equator of the Earth every day. And that’s just from one of a whole bunch of distribution centers. That’s where we are really with that operation today.

Cass: So could you talk a little bit about those non-medical systems? Because this was very much how we’d seen blood being parachuted down from these drones and reaching those distant centers. What other things are you delivering there?

Wyrobek: Yeah, absolutely. So start with blood, like you said, then vaccines. We’ve now done delivered well over 15 million vaccine doses, lots of other pharmaceutical use cases to hospitals and clinics, and more recently, patient home delivery for chronic care of things like hypertension, HIV-positive patients, and things like that. And then, yeah, moved into some really exciting use cases and things like animal husbandry. One that I’m personally really excited about is supporting these genetic diversity campaigns. It’s one of those things very unglamorous, but really impactful. One of the main sources of protein around the world is cow’s milk. And it turns out the difference between a non-genetically diverse cow and a genetically diverse cow can be 10x difference in milk production. And so one of the things we deliver is bull semen. We’re very good at the cold chain involved in that as we’ve mastered in vaccines and blood. And that’s just one of many things we’re doing in other spaces outside of healthcare directly.

Cass: Oh, fascinating. So turning now to the US, it seems like there’s been two big developments recently. One is you’re getting close to deploying Platform 2, which has some really fascinating tech that allows packages to be delivered very precisely by tether. And I do want to talk about that later. But first, I want to talk about a big milestone you had late last year. And this was something that goes by the very unlovely acronym of a BVLOS flight. Can you tell us what a BVLOS stands for and why that flight was such a big deal?

Wryobek: Yeah, “beyond visual line of sight.” And so that is basically, before this milestone last year, all drone deliveries, all drone operations in the US were done by people standing on the ground, looking at the sky, that line of sight. And that’s how basically we made sure that the drones were staying clear of aircraft. This is true of everybody. Now, this is important because in places like the United States, many aircraft don’t and aren’t required to carry a transponder, right? So transponders where they have a radio signal that they’re transmitting their location that our drones can listen to and use to maintain separation. And so the holy grail of basically scalable drone operations, of course, it’s physically impossible to have people standing around all the world staring at the sky, and is a sensing solution where you can sense those aircraft and avoid those aircraft. And this is something we’ve been working on for a long time and got the approval for late last year with the FAA, the first-ever use of sensors to detect and avoid for maintaining safety in the US airspace, which is just really, really exciting. That’s now been in operations in two distribution centers here, one in Utah and one in Arkansas ever since.

Cass: So could you just tell us a little bit about how that tech works? It just seems to be quite advanced to trust a drone to recognize, “Oh, that is an actual airplane that’s a Cessna that’s going to be here in about two minutes and is a real problem,” or, “No, it’s a hawk, which is just going about his business and I’m not going to ever come close to it at all because it’s so far away.

Wryobek: Yeah, this is really fun to talk about. So just to start with what we’re not doing, because most people expect us to use either a radar for this or cameras for this. And basically, those don’t work. And the radar, you would need such a heavy radar system to see 360 degrees all the way around your drone. And this is really important because two things to kind of plan in your mind. One is we’re not talking about autonomous driving where cars are close together. Aircraft never want to be as close together as cars are on a road, right? We’re talking about maintaining hundreds of meters of separation, and so you sense it a long distance. And drones don’t have right of way. So what that means is even if a plane’s coming up behind the drone, you got to sense that plane and get out of the way. And so to have enough radar on your drone that you can actually see far enough to maintain that separation in every direction, you’re talking about something that weighs many times the weight of a drone and it just doesn’t physically close. And so we started there because that’s sort of where we assumed and many people assume that’s the place to start. Then looked at cameras. Cameras have lots of drawbacks. And fundamentally, you can sort of-- we’ve all had this, you taken your phone and tried to take a picture of an airplane and you look at the picture, you can’t see the airplane. Yeah. It takes so many pixels of perfectly clean lenses to see an aircraft at a kilometer or two away that it really just is not practical or robust enough. And that’s when we went back to the drawing board and it ended up where we ended up, which is using an array of microphones to listen for aircraft, which works very well at very long distances to then maintain separation from those other aircraft.

Cass: So yeah, let’s talk about Platform 2 a little bit more because I should first explain for listeners who maybe aren’t familiar with Zipline that these are not the kind of the little purely sort of helicopter-like drones. These are these fixed wing with sort of loiter capability and hovering capabilities. So they’re not like your Mavic drones and so on. These have a capacity then for long-distance flight, which is what it gives them.

Wyrobek: Yeah. And maybe to jump into Platform 2— maybe starting with Platform 1, what does it look like? So Platform 1 is what we’ve been operating around the world for years now. And this basically looks like a small airplane, right? In the industry referred to as a fixed-wing aircraft. And it’s fixed wing because to solve the problem of going from a metro area to surrounding countryside, really two things matter. Your range and long range and low cost. And a fixed-wing aircraft over something that can hover has something like an 800% advantage in range and cost. And that’s why we did fix wing because it actually works for our customers for their needs for that use case. Platform 2 is all about, how do you deliver to homes and in metro areas where you need an incredible amount of precision to deliver to nearly every home. And so Platform 2—we call our drone zips—our drone, it flies out to the delivery site. Instead of floating a package down to a customer like Platform 1 does, it hovers. Platform 2 hovers and lowers down what we call a droid. And so the droids on tether. The drone stays way up high, about 100 meters up high, and the drone lowers down. And the drone itself-- sorry, the droid itself, it lowers down, it can fly. Right? So you think of it as like the tether does the heavy lifting, but the droid has fans. So if it gets hit by a gust of wind or whatnot, it can still stay very precisely on track and come in and deliver it to a very small area, put the package down, and then be out of there seconds later.

Cass: So let me get this right. Platform 2 is kind of as a combo, fixed wing and rotor wing. It’s like a VTOL like that. I’m cheating here a little bit because my colleague Evan Ackerman has a great Q&A on the Spectrum website with you, some of your team members about the nitty-gritty of how that design was evolved. But first off, it’s like a little droid thing at the end of the tether. How much extra precision do all those fans and stuff give you?

Wyrobek: Oh, massive, right? We can come down and hit a target within a few centimeters of where we want to deliver, which means we can deliver. Like if you have a small back porch, which is really common, right, in a lot of urban areas to have a small back porch or a small place on your roof or something like that, we can still just deliver as long as we have a few feet of open space. And that’s really powerful for being able to serve our customers. And a lot of people think of Platform 2 as like, “Hey, it’s a slightly better way of doing maybe a DoorDash-style operation, people in cars driving around.” And to be clear, it’s not slightly better. It’s massively better, much faster, more environmentally friendly. But we have many contracts for Platform 2 in the health space with US Health System Partners and Health Systems around the world. And what’s powerful about these customers in terms of their needs is they really need to serve all of their customers. And this is where a lot of our sort of-- this is where our engineering effort goes is how do you make a system that doesn’t just kind of work for some folks, and they can use it if they want to, but a health system is like, “No, I want this to work for everybody in my health network.” And so how do we get to that near 100 percent serviceability? And that’s what this droid really enables us to do. And of course, it has all these other magic benefits too. It makes some of the hardest design problems in this space much, much easier. The safety problem gets much easier by keeping the drone way up high.

Cass: Yeah, how high is Platform 2 hovering when it’s doing its deliveries?

Wyrobek: About 100 meters, so 300 plus feet, right? We’re talking about high up as a football field is long. And so it’s way up there. And it also helps with things like noise, right? We don’t want to live in a future where drones are all around us sounding like swarms of insects. We want drones to make no noise. We want them to just melt into the background. And so it makes that kind of problem much easier as well. And then, of course, the droid gets other benefits where for many products, we don’t need any packaging at all. We can just deliver the product right onto a table in your porch. And not just from a cost perspective, but again, from— we’re all familiar with the nightmare of packaging from deliveries we get. Eliminating packaging just has to be our future. And we’re really excited to advance that future.

Cass: From Evan’s Q&A, I know that a lot of effort went into making the droid element look rather adorable. Why was that so important?

Wryobek: Yeah, I like to describe it as sort of a cross between three things, if you kind of picture this, like a miniature little fan boat, right, because it has some fan, a big fan on the back, looks like a little fan boat, combined with sort of a baby seal, combined with a toaster. It sort of has that look to it. And making it adorable, there’s a bunch of sort of human things that matter, right? I want this to be something that when my grandmother, who’s not a tech-savvy, gets these deliveries, it’s approachable. It doesn’t come off as sort of scary. And when you make something cute, not only does it feel approachable, but it also forces you to get the details right so it is approachable, right? The rounded corners, right? This sounds really benign, but a lot of robots, it turns out if you bump into them, they scratch you. And we want you to be able to bump into this droid, and this is no big deal. And so getting the surfaces right, getting them— the surface is made sort of like a helmet foam. If you can picture that, right? The kind of thing you wouldn’t be afraid to touch if it touched you. And so getting it both to be something that feels safe, but is something that actually is safe to be around, those two things just matter a lot. Because again, we’re not designing this for some piloty kind of low-volume thing. Our customers want this in phenomenal volume. And so we really want this to be something that we’re all comfortable around.

Cass: Yeah, and one thing I want to pull out from that Q&A as well is it was an interesting note, because you mentioned it has three fans, but they’re rather unobtrusive. And the original design, you had two big fans on the sides, which was very great for maneuverability. But you had to get rid of those and come up with a three-fan design. And maybe you can explain why that was so.

Wryobek: Yeah, that’s a great detail. So the original design, the picture, it was like, imagine the package in the middle, and then kind of on either side of the package, two fans. So when you looked at it, it kind of looked like— I don’t know. It kind of looked like the package had big mouse ears or something. And when you looked at it, everybody had the same reaction. You kind of took this big step back. It was like, “Whoa, there’s this big thing coming down into my yard.” And when you’re doing this kind of user testing, we always joke, you don’t need to bring users in if it already makes you take a step back. And this is one of those things where like, “That’s just not good enough, right, to even start with that kind of refined design.” But when we got the sort of profile of it smaller, the way we think about it from a design experiment perspective is we want to deliver a large package. So basically, the droid needs to be as sucked down as small additional volume around that package as possible. So we spent a lot of time figuring out, “Okay, how do you do that sort of physically and aesthetically in a way that also gets that amazing performance, right? Because when I say performance, what I’m talking about is we still need it to work when the winds are blowing really hard outside and still can deliver precisely. And so it has to have a lot of aero performance to do that and still deliver precisely in essentially all weather conditions.

Cass: So I guess I just want to ask you then is, what kind of weight and volume are you able to deliver with this level of precision?

Wryobek: Yeah, yeah. So we’ll be working our way up to eight pounds. I say working our way up because that’s part of, once you launch a product like this, there’s refinement you can do overtime on many layers, but eight pounds, which was driven off, again, these health use cases. So it does basically 100 percent of what our health partners need to do. And it turns out it’s, nearly 100 percent of what we want to do in meal delivery. And even in the goods sector, I’m impressed by the percentage of goods we can deliver. One of our partners we work with, we can deliver over 80 percent of what they have in their big box store. And yeah, it’s wildly exceeding expectations on nearly every axis there. And volume, it’s big. It’s bigger than a shoebox. I don’t have a great-- I’m trying to think of a good reference to kind of bring it to life. But it looks like a small cooler basically inside. And it can comfortably fit a meal for four to give you a sense of the amount of food you can fit in there. Yeah.

Cass: So we’ve seen this history of Zipline in rural areas, and now we’re talking about expanding operations in more urban areas, but just how urban? I don’t imagine that we’ll see the zip lines of zooming around, say, the very hemmed-in streets, say, here in Midtown Manhattan. So what level of urban are we talking about?

Wryobek: Yeah, so the way we talk about it internally in our design process is basically we call three-story sprawl. Manhattan is the place where when we think of New York, we’re not talking about Manhattan, but most of the rest of New York, we are talking about it, right? Like the Bronx, things like that. We just have this sort of three stories forever. And that’s a lot of the world out here in California, that’s most of San Francisco. I think it’s something like 98 percent of San Francisco is that. If you’ve ever been to places like India and stuff like that, the cities, it’s just sort of this three stories going for a really long way. And that’s what we’re really focused on. And that’s also where we provide that incredible value because that’s also matches where the hardest traffic situations and things like that can make any other sort of terrestrial on-demand delivery be phenomenally late.

Cass: Well, no, I live out in Queens, so I agree there’s not much skyscrapers out there. Although there are quite a few trees and so on, but at the same time, there’s usually some sort of sidewalk availability. So is that kind of what you’re hoping to get into?

Wyrobek: Exactly. So as long as you’ve got a porch with a view of the sky or an alley with a view of the sky, it can be literally just a few feet, we can get in there, make a delivery, and be on our way.

Cass: And so you’ve done this preliminary test with the FAA, the BVLOS test, and so on. How close do you think you are to, and you’re working with a lot of partners, to really seeing this become routine commercial operations?

Wyrobek: Yeah, yeah. So at relatively limited scale, our operations here in Utah and in Arkansas that are leveraging that FAA approval for beyond visual line-of-sight flight operations, that’s been all day, every day now since our approval last year. With Platform 2, we’re really excited. That’s coming later this year. We’re currently in the phase of basically massive-scale testing. So we now have our production hardware and we’re taking it through a massive ground testing campaign. So this picture dozens of thermal chambers and five chambers and things like that just running to really both validate that we have the reliability we need and flush out any issues that we might have missed so we can address that difference between what we call the theoretical reliability and the actual reliability. And that’s running in parallel to a massive flight test campaign. Same idea, right? We’re slowly ramping up the flight volume as we fly into heavier conditions really to make sure we know the limits of the system. We know its actual reliability and true scaled operations so we can get the confidence that it’s ready to operate for people.

Cass: So you’ve got Platform 2. What’s kind of next on your technology roadmap for any possible platform three?

Wyrobek: Oh, great question. Yeah, I can’t comment on platform three at this time, but. And I will also say, Zipline is pouring our heart into Platform 2 right now. Getting Platform 2 ready for this-- the way I like to talk about this internally is today, we fly about four times the equator of the Earth in our operations on average. And that’s a few thousand flights per day. But the demand we have is for more like millions of flights per day, if not beyond. And so on the log scale, right, we’re halfway there. Three hours of magnitude down, three more zeros to come. And the level of testing, the level of systems engineering, the level of refinement required to do that is a lot. And there’s so many systems from weather forecasting to our onboard autonomy and our fleet management systems. And so to highlight one team, our system test team run by this really impressive individual named Juan Albanell, this team has taken us from where we were two years ago, where we had shown the concept at a very prototype stage of this delivery experience, and we’ve done the first order math kind of on the architecture and things like that through the iterations in test to actually make sure we had a drone that could actually fly in all these weather conditions with all the robustness and tolerance required to actually go to this global scale that Platform 2 is targeting.

Cass: Well, that’s fantastic. Well, I think there’s a lot more to talk about to come up in the future, and we look forward to talking with Zipline again. But for today, I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave it there. But it was really great to have you on the show, Keenan. Thank you so much.

Wyrobek: Cool. Absolutely, Stephen. It was a pleasure to speak with you.

Cass: So today on Fixing the Future, we were talking with Zipline’s Keenan Wyrobek about the progress of commercial drone deliveries. For IEEE Spectrum, I’m Stephen Cass, and I hope you’ll join us next time.

Boston Dynamics has just introduced a new Atlas humanoid robot, replacing the legendary hydraulic Atlas and intended to be a commercial product. This is huge news from the company that has spent the last decade building the most dynamic humanoids that the world has ever seen, and if you haven’t read our article about the announcement (and seen the video!), you should do that right now.

We’ve had about a decade of pent-up questions about an all-electric productized version of Atlas, and we were lucky enough to speak with Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter to learn more about where this robot came from and how it’s going to make commercial humanoid robots (finally) happen.

Robert Playter was the Vice President of Engineering at Boston Dynamics starting in 1994, which I’m pretty sure was back when Boston Dynamics still intended to be a modeling and simulation company rather than a robotics company. Playter became the CEO in 2019, helping the company make the difficult transition from R&D to commercial products with Spot, Stretch, and now (or very soon) Atlas.

We talked with Playter about what the heck took Boston Dynamics so long to make this robot, what the vision is for Atlas as a product, all that extreme flexibility, and what comes next.

Robert Playter on:

IEEE Spectrum: So what’s going on?

Robert Playter: Boston Dynamics has built an all-electric humanoid. It’s our newest generation of what’s been an almost 15-year effort in developing humanoids. We’re going to launch it as a product, targeting industrial applications, logistics, and places that are much more diverse than where you see Stretch—heavy objects with complex geometry, probably in manufacturing type environments. We’ve built our first robot, and we believe that’s really going to set the bar for the next generation of capabilities for this whole industry.

What took you so long?!

Playter: Well, we wanted to convince ourselves that we knew how to make a humanoid product that can handle a great diversity of tasks—much more so than our previous generations of robots—including at-pace bimanual manipulation of the types of heavy objects with complex geometry that we expect to find in industry. We also really wanted to understand the use cases, so we’ve done a lot of background work on making sure that we see where we can apply these robots fruitfully in industry.

We’ve obviously been working on this machine for a while, as we’ve been doing parallel development with our legacy Atlas. You’ve probably seen some of the videos of Atlas moving struts around—that’s the technical part of proving to ourselves that we can make this work. And then really designing a next generation machine that’s going to be an order of magnitude better than anything the world has seen.

“We’re not anxious to just show some whiz-bang tech, and we didn’t really want to indicate our intent to go here until we were convinced that there is a path to a product.” Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics

With Spot, it felt like Boston Dynamics developed the product first, without having a specific use case in mind: you put the robot out there and let people discover what it was good for. Is your approach different with Atlas?

Playter: You’re absolutely right. Spot was a technology looking for a product, and it’s taken time for us to really figure out the product market fit that we have in industrial inspection. But the challenge of that experience has left us wiser about really identifying the target applications before you say you’re going to build these things at scale.

Stretch is very different, because it had a clear target market. Atlas is going to be more like Stretch, although it’s going to be way more than a single task robot, which is kind of what Stretch is. Convincing ourselves that we could really generalize with Atlas has taken a little bit of time. This is going to be our third product in about four years. We’ve learned so much, and the world is different from that experience.

[back to top]

Is your vision for Atlas one of a general purpose robot?

Playter: It definitely needs to be a multi-use case robot. I believe that because I don’t think there’s very many examples where a single repetitive task is going to warrant these complex robots. I also think, though, that the practical matter is that you’re going to have to focus on a class of use cases, and really making them useful for the end customer. The lesson we’ve learned with both Spot and Stretch is that it’s critical to get out there and actually understand what makes this robot valuable to customers while making sure you’re building that into your development cycle. And if you can start that before you’ve even launched the product, then you’ll be better off.

[back to top]

How does thinking of this new Atlas as a product rather than a research platform change things?

Playter: I think the research that we’ve done over the past 10 or 15 years has been essential to making a humanoid useful in the first place. We focused on dynamic balancing and mobility and being able to pick something up and still maintain that mobility—those were research topics of the past that we’ve now figured out how to manage and are essential, I think, to doing useful work. There’s still a lot of work to be done on generality, so that humanoids can pick up any one of a thousand different parts and deal with them in a reasonable way. That level of generality hasn’t been proven yet; we think there’s promise, and that AI will be one of the tools that helps solve that. And there’s still a lot of product prototyping and iteration that will come out before we start building massive numbers of these things and shipping them to customers.

“This robot will be stronger at most of its joints than a person, and even an elite athlete, and will have a range of motion that exceeds anything a person can ever do.” —Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics

For a long time, it seemed like hydraulics were the best way of producing powerful dynamic motions for robots like Atlas. Has that now changed?

Playter: We first experimented with that with the launch of Spot. We had the same issue years ago, and discovered that we could build powerful lightweight electric motors that had the same kind of responsiveness and strength, or let’s say sufficient responsiveness and strength, to really make that work. We’ve designed an even newer set of really compact actuators into our electric Atlas, which pack the strength of essentially an elite human athlete into these tiny packages that make an electric humanoid feasible for us. So, this robot will be stronger at most of its joints than a person, and even an elite athlete, and will have a range of motion that exceeds anything a person can ever do. We’ve also compared the strength of our new electric Atlas to our hydraulic Atlas, and the electric Atlas is stronger.

[back to top]

In the context of Atlas’ range of motion, that introductory video was slightly uncomfortable to watch, which I’m sure was deliberate. Why introduce the new Atlas in that way?

Playter: These high range of motion actuators are going to enable a unique set of movements that ultimately will let the robot be very efficient. Imagine being able to turn around without having to take a bunch of steps to turn your whole body instead. The motions we showed [in the video] are ones where our engineers were like, “hey, with these joints, we could get up like this!” And it just wasn’t something we had that really thought about before. This flexibility creates a palette that you can design new stuff on, and we’re already having fun with it and we decided we wanted to share that excitement with the world.

[back to top]

“Everybody will buy one robot—we learned that with Spot. But they won’t start by buying fleets, and you don’t have a business until you can sell multiple robots to the same customer.” Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics

This does seem like a way of making Atlas more efficient, but I’ve heard from other folks working on humanoids that it’s important for robots to move in familiar and predictable ways for people to be comfortable working around them. What’s your perspective on that?

Playter: I do think that people are going to have to become familiar with our robot; I don’t think that means limiting yourself to human motions. I believe that ultimately, if your robot is stronger or more flexible, it will be able to do things that humans can’t do, or don’t want to do.

One of the real challenges of making a product useful is that you’ve got to have sufficient productivity to satisfy a customer. If you’re slow, that’s hard. We learned that with Stretch. We had two generations of Stretch, and the first generation did not have a joint that let it pivot 180 degrees, so it had to ponderously turn around between picking up a box and dropping it off. That was a killer. And so we decided “nope, gotta have that rotational joint.” It lets Stretch be so much faster and more efficient. At the end of the day, that’s what counts. And people will get used to it.

What can you tell me about the head?

Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter said the head on the new Atlas robot has been designed not to mimic the human form but rather “to project something else: a friendly place to look to gain some understanding about the intent of the robot.”Boston Dynamics

Playter: The old Atlas did not have an articulated head. But having an articulated head gives you a tool that you can use to indicate intent, and there are integrated lights which will be able to communicate to users. Some of our original concepts had more of a [human] head shape, but for us they always looked a little bit threatening or dystopian somehow, and we wanted to get away from that. So we made a very purposeful decision about the head shape, and our explicit intent was for it not to be human-like. We’re trying to project something else: a friendly place to look to gain some understanding about the intent of the robot.

The design borrows from some friendly shapes that we’d seen in the past. For example, there’s the old Pixar lamp that everybody fell in love with decades ago, and that informed some of the design for us.

[back to top]

How do you think the decade(s) of experience working on humanoids as well as your experience commercializing Spot will benefit you when it comes to making Atlas into a product?

Playter: This is our third product, and one of the things we’ve learned is that it takes way more than some interesting technology to make a product work. You have to have a real use case, and you have to have real productivity around that use case that a customer cares about. Everybody will buy one robot—we learned that with Spot. But they won’t start by buying fleets, and you don’t have a business until you can sell multiple robots to the same customer. And you don’t get there without all this other stuff—the reliability, the service, the integration.

When we launched Spot as a product several years ago, it was really about transforming the whole company. We had to take on all of these new disciplines: manufacturing, service, measuring the quality and reliability of our robots and then building systems and tools to make them steadily better. That transformation is not easy, but the fact that we’ve successfully navigated through that as an organization means that we can easily bring that mindset and skill set to bear as a company. Honestly, that transition takes two or three years to get through, so all of the brand new startup companies out there who have a prototype of a humanoid working—they haven’t even begun that journey.

There’s also cost. Building something effectively at a reasonable cost so that you can sell it at a reasonable cost and ultimately make some money out of it, that’s not easy either. And frankly, without the support of Hyundai which is of course a world-class manufacturing expert, it would be really challenging to do it on our own.

So yeah, we’re much more sober about what it takes to succeed now. We’re not anxious to just show some whiz-bang tech, and we didn’t really want to indicate our intent to go here until we were convinced that there is a path to a product. And I think ultimately, that will win the day.

[back to top]

What will you be working on in the near future, and what will you be able to share?

Playter: We’ll start showing more of the dexterous manipulation on the new Atlas that we’ve already shown on our legacy Atlas. And we’re targeting proof of technology testing in factories at Hyundai Motor Group [HMG] as early as next year. HMG is really excited about this venture; they want to transform their manufacturing and they see Atlas as a big part of that, and so we’re going to get on that soon.

[back to top]

What do you think other robotics folks will find most exciting about the new Atlas?

Playter: Having a robot with so much power and agility packed into a relatively small and lightweight package. I’ve felt honored in the past that most of these other companies compare themselves to us. They say, “well, where are we on the Boston Dynamics bar?” I think we just raised the bar. And that’s ultimately good for the industry, right? People will go, “oh, wow, that’s possible!” And frankly, they’ll start chasing us as fast as they can—that’s what we’ve seen so far. I think it’ll end up pulling the whole industry forward.

Yesterday, Boston Dynamics bid farewell to the iconic Atlas humanoid robot. Or, the hydraulically-powered version of Atlas, anyway—if you read between the lines of the video description (or even just read the actual lines of the video description), it was pretty clear that although hydraulic Atlas was retiring, it wasn’t the end of the Atlas humanoid program at Boston Dynamics. In fact, Atlas is already back, and better than ever.

Today, Boston Dynamics is introducing a new version of Atlas that’s all-electric. It’s powered by batteries and electric actuators, no more messy hydraulics. It exceeds human performance in terms of both strength and flexibility. And for the first time, Boston Dynamics is calling this humanoid robot a product. We’ll take a look at everything that Boston Dynamics is announcing today, and have even more detail in this Q&A with Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter.

Boston Dynamics’ new electric humanoid has been simultaneously one of the worst and best kept secrets in robotics over the last year or so. What I mean is that it seemed obvious, or even inevitable, that Boston Dynamics would take the expertise in humanoids that it developed with Atlas and combine that with its experience productizing a fully electric system like Spot. But just because something seems inevitable doesn’t mean it actually is inevitable, and Boston Dynamics has done an admirable job of carrying on as normal while building a fully electric humanoid from scratch. And here it is:

It’s all new, it’s all electric, and some of those movements make me slightly uncomfortable (we’ll get into that in a bit). The blog post accompanying the video is sparse on technical detail, but let’s go through the most interesting parts:

A decade ago, we were one of the only companies putting real R&D effort into humanoid robots. Now the landscape in the robotics industry is very different.

In 2010, we took a look at all the humanoid robots then in existence. You could, I suppose, argue that Honda was putting real R&D effort into ASIMO back then, but yeah, pretty much all those other humanoid robots came from research rather than industry. Now, it feels like we’re up to our eyeballs in commercial humanoids, but over the past couple of years, as startups have appeared out of nowhere with brand new humanoid robots, Boston Dynamics (to most outward appearances) was just keepin’ on with that R&D. Today’s announcement certainly changes that.

We are confident in our plan to not just create an impressive R&D project, but to deliver a valuable solution. This journey will start with Hyundai—in addition to investing in us, the Hyundai team is building the next generation of automotive manufacturing capabilities, and it will serve as a perfect testing ground for new Atlas applications.

Boston Dynamics

This is a significant advantage for Boston Dynamics—through Hyundai, they can essentially be their own first customer for humanoid robots, offering an immediate use case in a very friendly transitional environment. Tesla has a similar advantage with Optimus, but Boston Dynamics also has experience sourcing and selling and supporting Spot, which are those business-y things that seem like they’re not the hard part until they turn out to actually be the hard part.

In the months and years ahead, we’re excited to show what the world’s most dynamic humanoid robot can really do—in the lab, in the factory, and in our lives.

World’s most dynamic humanoid, you say? Awesome! Prove it! On video! With outtakes!

The electric version of Atlas will be stronger, with a broader range of motion than any of our previous generations. For example, our last generation hydraulic Atlas (HD Atlas) could already lift and maneuver a wide variety of heavy, irregular objects; we are continuing to build on those existing capabilities and are exploring several new gripper variations to meet a diverse set of expected manipulation needs in customer environments.

Now we’re getting to the good bits. It’s especially notable here that the electric version of Atlas will be “stronger” than the previous hydraulic version, because for a long time hydraulics were really the only way to get the kind of explosively powerful repetitive dynamic motions that enabled Atlas to do jumps and flips. And the switch away from hydraulics enables that extra range of motion now that there aren’t hoses and stuff to deal with.

It’s also pretty clear that the new Atlas is built to continue the kind of work that hydraulic Atlas has been doing, manipulating big and heavy car parts. This is in sharp contrast to most other humanoid robots that we’ve seen, which have primarily focused on moving small objects or bins around in warehouse environments.

We are not just delivering industry-leading hardware. Some of our most exciting progress over the past couple of years has been in software. In addition to our decades of expertise in simulation and model predictive control, we have equipped our robots with new AI and machine learning tools, like reinforcement learning and computer vision to ensure they can operate and adapt efficiently to complex real-world situations.

This is all par for the course now, but it’s also not particularly meaningful without more information. “We will give our robots new capabilities through machine learning and AI” is what every humanoid robotics company (and most other robotics companies) are saying, but I’m not sure that we’re there yet, because there’s an “okay but how?” that needs to happen first. I’m not saying that it won’t happen, just pointing out that until it does happen, it hasn’t happened.

The humanoid form factor is a useful design for robots working in a world designed for people. However, that form factor doesn’t limit our vision of how a bipedal robot can move, what tools it needs to succeed, and how it can help people accomplish more.

Agility Robotics has a similar philosophy with Digit, which has a mostly humanoid form factor to operate in human environments but also uses a non-human leg design because Agility believes that it works better. Atlas is a bit more human-like with its overall design, but there are some striking differences, including both range of motion and the head, both of which we’ll be talking more about.

We designed the electric version of Atlas to be stronger, more dexterous, and more agile. Atlas may resemble a human form factor, but we are equipping the robot to move in the most efficient way possible to complete a task, rather than being constrained by a human range of motion. Atlas will move in ways that exceed human capabilities.

The introductory video with the new Atlas really punches you in the face with this: Atlas is not constrained by human range of motion and will leverage its extra degrees of freedom to operate faster and more efficiently, even if you personally might find some of those motions a little bit unsettling.

Boston Dynamics

Combining decades of practical experience with first principles thinking, we are confident in our ability to deliver a robot uniquely capable of tackling dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks in real applications.

As Marco Hutter pointed out, most commercial robots (humanoids included) are really only targeting tasks that are dull, because dull usually means repetitive, and robots are very good at repetitive. Dirty is a little more complicated, and dangerous is a lot more complicated than that. I appreciate that Boston Dynamics is targeting those other categories of tasks from the outset.

Commercialization takes great engineering, but it also takes patience, imagination, and collaboration. Boston Dynamics has proven that we can deliver the full package with both industry-leading robotics and a complete ecosystem of software, services, and support to make robotics useful in the real world.

There’s a lot more to building a successful robotics company than building a successful robot. Arguably, building a successful robot is not even the hardest part, long term. Having over 1500 Spot robots deployed with customers gives them a well-established product infrastructure baseline to expand from with the new Atlas.

Taking a step back, let’s consider the position that Boston Dynamics is in when it comes to the humanoid space right now.

The new Atlas appears to be a reasonably mature platform with explicit commercial potential, but it’s not yet clear if this particular version of Atlas is truly commercially viable, in terms of being manufacturable and supportable at scale—it’s Atlas 001, after all. There’s likely a huge amount of work that still needs to be done, but it’s a process that the company has already gone through with Spot. My guess is that Boston Dynamics has some catching up to do with respect to other humanoid companies that are already entering pilot projects.

In terms of capabilities, even though the new Atlas hardware is new, it’s not like Boston Dynamics is starting from scratch, since they’re already transferring skills from hydraulic Atlas onto the new platform. But, we haven’t seen the new Atlas doing any practical tasks yet, so it’s hard to tell how far along that is, and it would be premature to assume that hydraulic Atlas doing all kinds of amazing things in YouTube videos implies that electric Atlas can do similar things safely and reliably in a product context. There’s a gap there, possibly an enormous gap, and we’ll need to see more from the new Atlas to understand where it’s at.

And obviously, there’s a lot of competition in humanoids right now, although I’d like to think that the potential for practical humanoid robots to be useful in society is significant enough that there will be room for lots of different approaches. Boston Dynamics was very early to humanoids in general, but they’re somewhat late to this recent (and rather abrupt) humanoid commercialization push. This may not be a problem, especially if Atlas is targeting applications where its strength and flexibility sets it apart from other robots in the space, and if their depth of experience deploying commercial robotic platforms helps them to scale quickly.

Boston Dynamics

An electric Atlas may indeed have been inevitable, and it’s incredibly exciting to (finally!) see Boston Dynamics take this next step towards a commercial humanoid, which would deliver on more than a decade of ambition stretching back through the DARPA Robotics Challenge to PETMAN. We’ve been promised more manipulation footage soon, and Boston Dynamics expects that Atlas will be in the technology demonstration phase in Hyundai factories as early as next year.

We have a lot more questions, but we have a lot more answers, too: you’ll find a Q&A with Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter right here.

In a new video posted today, Boston Dynamics is sending off its hydraulic Atlas humanoid robot. “For almost a decade,” the video description reads, “Atlas has sparked our imagination, inspired the next generations of roboticists, and leapt over technical barriers in the field. Now it’s time for our hydraulic Atlas robot to kick back and relax.”

Hydraulic Atlas has certainly earned some relaxation; Boston Dynamics has been absolutely merciless with its humanoid research program. This isn’t a criticism—sometimes being merciless to your hardware is necessary to push the envelope of what’s possible. And as spectators, we just just get to enjoy it, and this highlight reel includes unseen footage of Atlas doing things well along with unseen footage of Atlas doing things not so well. Which, let’s be honest, is what we’re all really here for.

There’s so much more to the history of Atlas than this video shows. Atlas traces its history back to a DARPA project called PETMAN (Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin), which we first wrote about in 2009, so long ago that we had to dig up our own article on the Wayback Machine. As contributor Mikell Taylor wrote back then:

PETMAN is designed to test the suits used by soldiers to protect themselves against chemical warfare agents. It has to be capable of moving just like a soldier—walking, running, bending, reaching, army crawling—to test the suit’s durability in a full range of motion. To really simulate humans as accurately as possible, PETMAN will even be able to “sweat”.

Relative to the other humanoid robots out there at the time (the most famous of which, by far, was Honda’s ASIMO), PETMAN’s movement and balance were very, very impressive. Also impressive was the presumably unintentional way in which this PETMAN video synced up with the music video to Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees. Anyway, DARPA was suitably impressed by all this impressiveness, and chose Boston Dynamics to build another humanoid robot to be used for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. That robot was unveiled ten years ago.

The DRC featured a [still looking for a collective noun for humanoid robots] of Atlases, and it seemed like Boston Dynamics was hooked on the form factor, because less than a year after the DRC Finals the company announced the next generation of Atlas, which could do some useful things like move boxes around. Every six months or so, Boston Dynamics put out a new Atlas video, with the robot running or jumping or dancing or doing parkour, leveraging its powerful hydraulics to impress us every single time. There was really nothing like hydraulic Atlas in terms of dynamic performance, and you could argue that there still isn’t. This is a robot that will be missed.

The original rendering of Atlas, followed by four generations of the robot.Boston Dynamics/IEEE Spectrum

Now, if you’re wondering why Boston Dynamics is saying “it’s time for our hydraulic Atlas robot to kick back and relax,” rather than just “our Atlas robot,” and if you’re also wondering why the video description ends with “take a look back at everything we’ve accomplished with the Atlas platform “to date,” well, I can’t help you. Some people might attempt to draw some inferences and conclusions from that very specific and deliberate language, but I would certainly not be one of them, because I’m well known for never speculating about anything.

I would, however, point out a few things that have been obvious for a while now. Namely, that:

  • Boston Dynamics has been focusing fairly explicitly on commercialization over the past several years
  • Complex hydraulic robots are not product friendly because (among other things) they tend to leave puddles of hydraulic fluid on the carpet
  • Boston Dynamics has been very successful with Spot as a productized electric platform based on earlier hydraulic research platforms
  • Fully electric commercial humanoids really seems to be where robotics is at right now
There’s nothing at all new in any of this; the only additional piece of information we have is that the hydraulic Atlas is, as of today, retiring. And I’m just going to leave things there.

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

RoboCup German Open: 17–21 April 2024, KASSEL, GERMANYAUVSI XPONENTIAL 2024: 22–25 April 2024, SAN DIEGOEurobot Open 2024: 8–11 May 2024, LA ROCHE-SUR-YON, FRANCEICRA 2024: 13–17 May 2024, YOKOHAMA, JAPANRoboCup 2024: 17–22 July 2024, EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDSCybathlon 2024: 25–27 October 2024, ZURICH

Enjoy today’s videos!

I think suggesting that robots can’t fall is much less useful than instead suggesting that robots can fall and get quickly and easily get back up again.

[ Deep Robotics ]

Sanctuary AI says that this video shows Phoenix operating at “human-equivalent speed,” but they don’t specify which human or under which conditions. Though it’s faster than I would be, that’s for sure.

[ Sanctuary AI ]

“Suzume” is an animated film by Makoto Shinkai, in which one of the characters gets turned into a three-legged chair:

Shintaro Inoue from JSK Lab at the University of Tokyo has managed to build a robotic version of that same chair, which is pretty impressive:

[ Github ]

Thanks, Shintaro!

Humanoid robot EVE training for home assistance like putting groceries into the kitchen cabinets.

[ 1X ]

This is the RAM—robotic autonomous mower. It can be dropped anywhere in the world and will wake up with a mission to make tall grass around it shorter. Here is a quick clip of it working on the Presidio in SF.

[ Electric Sheep ]

This year, our robots braved a Finnish winter for the first time. As the snow clears and the days get longer, we’re looking back on how our robots made thousands of deliveries to S Group customers during the colder months.

[ Starship ]

Agility Robotics is doing its best to answer the (very common) question of “Okay, but what can humanoid robots actually do?”

[ Agility Robotics ]

Digit is great and everything, but Cassie will always be one of my favorite robots.

[ CoRIS ]

Adopting omnidirectional Field of View (FoV) cameras in aerial robots vastly improves perception ability, significantly advancing aerial robotics’s capabilities in inspection, reconstruction, and rescue tasks. We propose OmniNxt, a fully open-source aerial robotics platform with omnidirectional perception.

[ OmniNxt ]

The MAkEable framework enhances mobile manipulation in settings designed around humans by streamlining the process of sharing learned skills and experiences among different robots and contexts. Practical tests confirm its efficiency in a range of scenarios, involving different robots, in tasks such as object grasping, coordinated use of both hands in tasks, and the exchange of skills among humanoid robots.

[ Paper ]

We conducted trials of Ringbot outdoors on a 400 meter track. With a power source of 2300 milliamp-hours and 11.1 Volts, Ringbot managed to cover approximately 3 kilometers in 37 minutes. We commanded its target speed and direction using a remote joystick controller (Steam Deck), and Ringbot experienced five falls during this trial.

[ Paper ]

There is a notable lack of consistency about where exactly Boston Dynamics wants you to think Spot’s eyes are.

[ Boston Dynamics ]

As with every single cooking video, there’s a lot of background prep that’s required for this robot to cook an entire meal, but I would utterly demolish those fries.

[ Dino Robotics ]

Here’s everything you need to know about Wing delivery drones, except for how much human time they actually require and the true cost of making deliveries by drone, because those things aren’t fun to talk about.

[ Wing ]

This CMU Teruko Yata Memorial Lecture is by Agility Robotics’ Jonathan Hurst, on “Human-Centric Robots and How Learning Enables Generality.”

Humans have dreamt of robot helpers forever. What’s new is that this dream is becoming real. New developments in AI, building on foundations of hardware and passive dynamics, enable vastly improved generality. Robots can step out of highly structured environments and become more human-centric: operating in human spaces, interacting with people, and doing some basic human workflows. By connecting a Large Language Model, Digit can convert natural language high-level requests into complex robot instructions, composing the library of skills together, using human context to achieve real work in the human world. All of this is new—and it is never going back: AI will drive a fast-following robot revolution that is going to change the way we live.

[ CMU ]

We tend to think about hopping robots from the ground up. That is, they start on the ground, and then, by hopping, incorporate a aerial phase into their locomotion. But there’s no reason why aerial robots can’t approach hopping from the other direction, by adding a hopping ground phase to flight. Hopcopter is the first robot that I’ve ever seen give this a try, and it’s remarkably effective, combining a tiny quadrotor with a springy leg to hop hop hop all over the place.

Songnan Bai, Runze Ding, Song Li, and Bingxuan Pu

So why in the air is it worth adding a pogo stick to an otherwise perfectly functional quadrotor? Well, flying is certainly a valuable ability to have, but does take a lot of energy. If you pay close attention to birds (acknowledged experts in the space), they tend to spend a substantial amount of time doing their level best not to fly, often by walking on the ground or jumping around in trees. Not flying most of the time is arguably one of the things that makes birds so successful—it’s that multimodal locomotion capability that has helped them to adapt to so many different environments and situations.

Hopcopter is multimodal as well, although in a slightly more restrictive sense: Its two modes are flying and intermittent flying. But the intermittent flying is very important, because cutting down on that flight phase gives Hopcopter some of the same efficiency benefits that birds experience. By itself, a quadrotor of hopcopter’s size can stay airborne for about 400 seconds, while Hopcopter can hop continuously for more than 20 minutes. If your objective is to cover as much distance as possible, Hopcopter might not be as effective as a legless quadrotor. But if your objective is instead something like inspection or search and rescue, where you need to spend a fair amount of time not moving very much, hopping could be significantly more effective.

Hopcopter is a small quadcopter (specifically a Crazyflie) attached to a springy pogo-stick leg.Songnan Bai, Runze Ding, Song Li, and Bingxuan Pu

Hopcopter can reposition itself on the fly to hop off of different surfaces.Songnan Bai, Runze Ding, Song Li, and Bingxuan Pu

The actual hopping is mostly passive. Hopcopter’s leg is two rigid pieces connected by rubber bands, with a Crazyflie microcopter stapled to the top. During a hop, the Crazyflie can add directional thrust to keep the hops hopping and alter its direction as well as its height, from 0.6 meters to 1.6 meters. There isn’t a lot of room for extra sensors on Hopcopter, but the addition of some stabilizing fins allow for continuous hopping without any positional feedback.

Besides vertical hopping, Hopcopter can also position itself in midair to hop off of surfaces at other orientations, allowing it to almost instantaneously change direction, which is a neat trick.

And it can even do mid air somersaults, because why not?

Hopcopter’s repertoire of tricks includes somersaults.Songnan Bai, Runze Ding, Song Li, and Bingxuan Pu

The researchers, based at the City University of Hong Kong, say that the Hopcopter technology (namely, the elastic leg) could be easily applied to most other quadcopter platforms, turning them into Hopcopters as well. And if you’re more interested in extra payload rather than extra endurance, it’s possible to use hopping in situations where a payload would be too heavy for continuous flight.

The researchers published their work 10 April in Science Robotics.

Last December, the AI Institute announced that it was opening an office in Zurich as a European counterpart to its Boston headquarters and recruited Marco Hutter to helm the office. Hutter also runs the Robotic Systems Lab at ETH Zurich, arguably best known as the origin of the ANYmal quadruped robot (but it also does tons of other cool stuff).

We’re doing our best to keep close tabs on the institute, because it’s one of a vanishingly small number of places that currently exist where roboticists have the kind of long-term resources and vision necessary to make substantial progress on really hard problems that aren’t quite right for either industry or academia. The institute is still scaling up (and the branch in Zurich has only just kicked things off), but we did spot some projects that the Boston folks have been working on, and as you can see from the clips at the top of this page, they’re looking pretty cool.

Meanwhile, we had a chance to check in with Marco Hutter to get a sense of what the Zurich office will be working on and how he’s going to be solving all of the hard problems in robotics. All of them!

How much can you tell us about what you’ll be working on at the AI Institute?

Marco Hutter: If you know the research that I’ve been doing in the past at ETH and with our startups, there’s an overlap on making systems more mobile, making systems more able to interact with the world, making systems in general more capable on the hardware and software side. And that’s what the institute strives for.

The institute describes itself as a research organization that aims to solve the most important and fundamental problems in robotics and AI. What do you think those problems are?

Marco Hutter is the head of the AI Institute’s new Zurich branch.Swiss Robotics Day

Hutter: There are lots of problems. If you’re looking at robots today, we have to admit that they’re still pretty stupid. The way they move, their capability of understanding their environment, the way they’re able to interact with unstructured environments—I think we’re still lacking a lot of skills on the robotic side to make robots useful in all of the tasks we wish them to do. So we have the ambition of having these robots taking over all these dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs. But if we’re honest, today the biggest impact is really only for the dull part. And I think these dirty and dangerous jobs, where we really need support from robots, that’s still going to take a lot of fundamental work on the robotics and AI side to make enough progress for robots to become useful tools.

What is it about the institute that you think will help robotics make more progress in these areas?

Hutter: I think the institute is one of these unique places where we are trying to bring the benefits of the academic world and the benefits from this corporate world together. In academia, we have all kinds of crazy ideas and we try to develop them in all different directions, but at the same time, we have limited engineering support, and we can only go so far. Making robust and reliable hardware systems is a massive effort, and that kind of engineering is much better done in a corporate lab.

You’ve seen this a little bit with the type of work my lab has been doing in the past. We built simple quadrupeds with a little bit of mobility, but in order to make them robust, we eventually had to spin it out. We had to bring it to the corporate world, because for a research group, a pure academic group, it would have been impossible. But at the same time, you’re losing something, right? Once you go into your corporate world and you’re running a business, you have to be very focused; you can’t be that explorative and free anymore.

So if you bring these two things together through the institute, with long-term planning, enough financial support, and brilliant people both in the U.S. and Europe working together, I think that’s what will hopefully help us make significant progress in the next couple of years.

“We’re very different from a traditional company, where at some point you need to have a product that makes money. Here, it’s really about solving problems and taking the next step.” —Marco Hutter, AI Institute

And what will that actually mean in the context of dynamically mobile robots?

Hutter: If you look at Boston Dynamics’ Atlas doing parkour, or ANYmal doing parkour, these are still demonstrations. You don’t see robots running around in the forests or robots working in mines and doing all kinds of crazy maintenance operations, or in industrial facilities, or construction sites, you name it. We need to not only be able to do this once as a prototype demonstration, but to have all the capabilities that bring that together with environmental perception and understanding to make this athletic intelligence more capable and more adaptable to all kinds of different environments. This is not something that from today to tomorrow we’re going to see it being revolutionized—it will be gradual, steady progress because I think there’s still a lot of fundamental work that needs to be done.

I feel like the mobility of legged robots has improved a lot over the last five years or so, and a lot of that progress has come from Boston Dynamics and also from your lab. Do you feel the same?

Hutter: There has always been progress; the question is how much you can zoom in or zoom out. I think one thing has changed quite a bit, and that’s the availability of robotic systems to all kinds of different research groups. If you look back a decade, people had to build their own robots, they had to do the control for the robots, they had to work on the perception for the robots, and putting everything together like that makes it extremely fragile and very challenging to make something that works more than once. That has changed, which allows us to make faster progress.

Marc Raibert (founder of the AI Institute) likes to show videos of mountain goats to illustrate what robots should be (or will be?) capable of. Does that kind of thing inspire you as well?

Hutter: If you look at the animal kingdom, there’s so many things you can draw inspiration from. And a lot of this stuff is not only the cognitive side; it’s really about pairing the cognitive side with the mechanical intelligence of things like the simple-seeming hooves of mountain goats. But they’re really not that simple, they’re pretty complex in how they interact with the environment. Having one of these things and not the other won’t allow the animal to move across its challenging environment. It’s the same thing with the robots.

It’s always been like this in robotics, where you push on the hardware side, and your controls become better, so you hit a hardware limitation. So both things have to evolve hand in hand. Otherwise, you have an over-dimensioned hardware system that you can’t use because you don’t have the right controls, or you have very sophisticated controls and your hardware system can’t keep up.

How do you feel about all of the investment into humanoids right now, when quadrupedal robots with arms have been around for quite a while?

Hutter: There’s a lot of ongoing research on quadrupeds with arms, and the nice thing is that these technologies that are developed for mobile systems with arms are the same technologies that are used in humanoids. It’s not different from a research point of view, it’s just a different form factor for the system. I think from an application point of view, the story from all of these companies making humanoids is that our environment has been adapted to humans quite a bit. A lot of tasks are at the height of a human standing, right? A quadruped doesn’t have the height to see things or to manipulate things on a table. It’s really application dependent, and I wouldn’t say that one system is better than the other.

Rapid and resourceful technological improvisation has long been a mainstay of warfare, but the war in Ukraine is taking it to a new level. This improvisation is most conspicuous in the ceaselessly evolving struggle between weaponized drones and electronic warfare, a cornerstone of this war.

Weaponized civilian first-person-view (FPV) drones began dramatically reshaping the landscape of the war in the summer of 2023. Prior to this revolution, various commercial drones played critical roles, primarily for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Since 2014, the main means of defending against these drones has been electronic warfare (EW), in its many forms. The iterative, lethal dance between drones and EW has unfolded a rich technological tapestry, revealing insights into a likely future of warfare where EW and drones intertwine.

After the invasion of Crimea, in 2014, Ukrainian forces depended heavily on commercial off-the-shelf drones, such as models from DJI, for reconnaissance and surveillance. These were not FPV drones, for the most part. Russia’s response involved deploying military-grade EW systems alongside law-enforcement tools like Aeroscope, a product from DJI that allows instant identification and tracking of drones from their radio emissions. Aeroscope, while originally a standard tool used by law enforcement to detect and track illegal drone flights, soon revealed its military potential by pinpointing both the drone and its operator.

On both sides of the line you’ll find much the same kind of people doing much the same thing: hacking.

This application turned a security feature into a significant tactical asset, providing Russian artillery units with precise coordinates for their targets—namely, Ukrainian drone operators. To circumvent this vulnerability, groups of Ukrainian volunteers innovated. By updating the firmware of the DJI drones, they closed the backdoors that allowed the drones to be tracked by Aeroscope. Nevertheless, after the start of the conflict in Crimea, commercial, off-the-shelf drones were considered a last-resort asset used by volunteers to compensate for the lack of proper military systems. To be sure, the impact of civilian drones during this period was not comparable to what occurred after the February 2022 invasion.

As Russia’s “thunder-run” strategy became bogged down shortly after the invasion, Russian forces found themselves unexpectedly vulnerable to civilian drones, in part because most of their full-scale military EW systems were not very mobile.

During a training exercise in southern Ukraine in May 2023, a drone pilot maneuvered a flier to a height of 100 meters before dropping a dummy anti-tank grenade on to a pile of tires. The test, pictured here, worked—that night the pilot’s team repeated the exercise over occupied territory, blowing up a Russian armored vehicle. Emre Caylak/Guardian/eyevine/Redux

The Russians could have compensated by deploying many Aeroscope terminals then, but they didn’t, because most Russian officers at the time had a dismissive view of the capabilities of civilian drones in a high-intensity conflict. That failure opened a window of opportunity that Ukrainian armed-forces units exploited aggressively. Military personnel, assisted by many volunteer technical specialists, gained a decisive intelligence advantage for their forces by quickly fielding fleets of hundreds of camera drones connected to simple yet effective battlefield-management systems. They soon began modifying commercial drones to attack, with grenade tosses and, ultimately, “kamikaze” operations. Besides the DJI models, one of the key drones was the R18, an octocopter developed by the Ukrainian company Aerorozvidka, capable of carrying three grenades or small bombs. As casualties mounted, Russian officers soon realized the extent of the threat posed by these drones.

How Russian electronic warfare evolved to counter the drone threat

By spring 2023, as the front lines stabilized following strategic withdrawals and counteroffensives, it was clear that the nature of drone warfare had evolved. Russian defenses had adapted, deploying more sophisticated counter-drone systems. Russian forces were also beginning to use drones, setting the stage for the nuanced cat-and-mouse game that has been going on ever since.

The modular construction of first-person-view drones allowed for rapid evolution to enhance their resilience against electronic warfare.

For example, early on, most Russian EW efforts primarily focused on jamming the drones’ radio links for control and video. This wasn’t too hard, given that DJI’s OcuSync protocol was not designed to withstand dense jamming environments. So by April 2023, Ukrainian drone units had begun pivoting toward first-person-view (FPV) drones with modular construction, enabling rapid adaptation to, and evasion of, EW countermeasures.

The Russian awakening to the importance of drones coincided with the stabilization of the front lines, around August 2022. Sluggish Russian offensives came at a high cost, with an increasing proportion of casualties caused directly or indirectly by drone operators. By this time, the Ukrainians were hacking commercial drones, such as DJI Mavics, to “anonymize” them, rendering Aeroscope useless. It was also at this time that the Russians began to adopt commercial drones and develop their own tactics, techniques, and procedures, leveraging their EW and artillery advantages while attempting to compensate for their delay in combat-drone usage.

On 4 March, a Ukrainian soldier flew a drone at a testing site near the town of Kreminna in eastern Ukraine. The drone was powered by a blue battery pack and carried a dummy bomb.David Guttenfelder/The New York Times/Redux

Throughout 2023, when the primary EW tactic employed was jamming, the DJI drones began to fall out of favor for attack roles. When the density of Russian jammer usage surpassed a certain threshold, DJI’s OcuSync radio protocol, which controls a drone’s flight direction and video, could not cope with it. Being proprietary, OcuSync’s frequency band and power are not modifiable. A jammer can attack both the control and video signals, and the drone becomes unrecoverable most of the time. As a result, DJI drones have lately been used farther from the front lines and relegated mainly to roles in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Meanwhile, the modular construction of FPVs allowed for rapid evolution to enhance their resilience against EW. The Ukraine war greatly boosted the world’s production of FPV drones; at this point there are thousands of FPV models and modifications.

A “kamikaze” first-person-view drone with an attached PG-7L round, intended for use with an RPG-7 grenade launcher, is readied for a mission near the town of Horlivka, in the Donetsk region, on 17 January 2024. The drone was prepared by a Ukrainian serviceman of the Rarog UAV squadron of the 24th Separate Mechanized Brigade.Inna Varenytsia/Reuters/Redux

As of early 2024, analog video signals are the most popular option by far. This technology offers drone operators a brief window of several seconds to correct the drone’s path upon detecting interference, for example as a result of jamming, before signal loss. Additionally, drone manufacturers have access to more powerful video transmitters, up to 5 watts, which are more resistant to jamming. Furthermore, the 1.2-gigahertz frequency band is gaining popularity over the previously dominant 5.8-GHz band due to its superior obstacle penetration and because fewer jammers are targeting that band.

However, the lack of encryption in analog video transmitter systems means that a drone’s visual feed can be intercepted by any receiver. So various mitigation strategies have been explored. These include adding encryption layers and using digital-control and video protocols such as HDZero, Walksnail, or, especially, any of several new open-source alternatives.

In the war zone, the most popular of these open-source control radio protocols is ExpressLRS, or ELRS. Being open-source, ELRS not only offers more affordable hardware than its main rival, TBS Crossfire, it is also modifiable via its software. It has been hacked in order to use frequency bands other than its original 868 to 915 megahertz. This adaptation produces serious headaches for EW operators, because they have to cover a much wider band. As of March 2024, Ukrainian drone operators are performing final tests on 433-MHz ELRS transmitter-receiver pairs, further challenging prevailing EW methods.

Distributed mass in the transparent battlefield

Nevertheless, the most important recent disruption of all in the drone-versus-EW struggle is distributed mass. Instead of an envisioned blitzkrieg-style swarm with big clouds of drones hitting many closely spaced targets during very short bursts, an ever-growing number of drones are covering more widely dispersed targets over a much longer time period, whenever the weather is conducive. Distributed mass is a cornerstone of the emerging transparent battlefield, in which many different sensors and platforms transmit huge amounts of data that is integrated in real time to provide a comprehensive view of the battlefield. One offshoot of this strategy is that more and more kamikaze drones are directed toward a constantly expanding range of targets. Electronic warfare is adapting to this new reality, confronting mass with mass: massive numbers of drones against massive numbers of RF sensors and jammers.

Ukraine is the first true war of the hackers.

Attacks now often consist of far more commercial drones than a suite of RF detectors or jammers could handle even six months ago. With brute-force jamming, even if defenders are willing to accept high rates of damage inflicted on their own offensive drones, these previous EW systems are just not up to the task. So for now, at least, the drone hackers are in the lead in this deadly game of “hacksymmetrical” warfare. Their development cycle is far too rapid for conventional electronic warfare to keep pace.

But the EW forces are not standing still. Both sides are either developing or acquiring civilian RF-detecting equipment, while military-tech startups and even small volunteer groups are developing new, simple, and good-enough jammers in essentially the same improvised ways that hackers would.

Ukrainian soldiers familiarized themselves with a portable drone jammer during a training session in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on 11 March 2024.Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu/Getty Images

Two examples illustrate this trend. Increasingly affordable, short-range jammers are being installed on tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, pickups, and even 4x4s. Although limited and unsophisticated, these systems contribute to drone-threat mitigation. In addition, a growing number of soldiers on the front line carry simple, commercial radio-frequency (RF) scanners with them. Configured to detect drones across various frequency bands, these devices, though far from perfect, have begun to save lives by providing precious additional seconds of warning before an imminent drone attack.

The electronic battlefield has now become a massive game of cat and mouse. Because commercial drones have proven so lethal and disruptive, drone operators have become high-priority targets. As a result, operators have had to reinvent camouflage techniques, while the hackers who drive the evolution of their drones are working on every modification of RF equipment that offers an advantage. Besides the frequency-band modification described above, hackers have developed and refined two-way, two-signal repeaters for drones. Such systems are attached to another drone that hovers close to the operator and well above the ground, relaying signals to and from the attacking drone. Such repeaters more than double the practical range of drone communications, and thus the EW “cats” in this game have to search a much wider area than before.

Hackers and an emerging cottage industry of war startups are raising the stakes. Their primary goal is to erode the effectiveness of jammers by attacking them autonomously. In this countermeasure, offensive drones are equipped with home-on-jam systems. Over the next several months, increasingly sophisticated versions of these systems will be fielded. These home-on-jam capabilities will autonomously target any jamming emission within range; this range, which is classified, depends on emission power at a rate that is believed to be 0.3 kilometers per watt. In other words, if a jammer has 100 W of signal power, it can be detected up to 30 km away, and then attacked. After these advances allow the drone “mice” to hunt the EW cat, what will happen to the cat?

The challenge is unprecedented and the outcome uncertain. But on both sides of the line you’ll find much the same kind of people doing much the same thing: hacking. Civilian hackers have for years lent their skills to such shady enterprises as narco-trafficking and organized crime. Now hacking is a major, indispensable component of a full-fledged war, and its practitioners have emerged from a gray zone of plausible deniability into the limelight of military prominence. Ukraine is the first true war of the hackers.

The implications for Western militaries are ominous. We have neither masses of drones nor masses of EW tech. What is worse, the world’s best hackers are completely disconnected from the development of defense systems. The Ukrainian experience, where a vibrant war startup scene is emerging, suggests a model for integrating maverick hackers into our defense strategies. As the first hacker war continues to unfold, it serves as a reminder that in the era of electronic and drone warfare, the most critical assets are not just the technologies we deploy but also the scale and the depth of the human ingenuity behind them.

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

RoboCup German Open: 17–21 April 2024, KASSEL, GERMANYAUVSI XPONENTIAL 2024: 22–25 April 2024, SAN DIEGOEurobot Open 2024: 8–11 May 2024, LA ROCHE-SUR-YON, FRANCEICRA 2024: 13–17 May 2024, YOKOHAMA, JAPANRoboCup 2024: 17–22 July 2024, EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS

Enjoy today’s videos!

USC, UPenn, Texas A&M, Oregon State, Georgia Tech, Temple University, and NASA Johnson Space Center are teaching dog-like robots to navigate craters of the moon and other challenging planetary surfaces in research funded by NASA.

[ USC ]

AMBIDEX is a revolutionary robot that is fast, lightweight, and capable of human-like manipulation. We have added a sensor head and the torso and the waist to greatly expand the range of movement. Compared to the previous arm-centered version, the overall impression and balance has completely changed.

[ Naver Labs ]

It still needs a lot of work, but the six-armed pollinator, Stickbug, can autonomously navigate and pollinate flowers in a greenhouse now.

I think “needs a lot of work” really means “needs a couple more arms.”

[ Paper ]

Experience the future of robotics as UBTECH’s humanoid robot integrates with Baidu’s ERNIE through AppBuilder! Witness robots [that] understand language and autonomously perform tasks like folding clothes and object sorting.


I know the fins on this robot are for walking underwater rather than on land, but watching it move, I feel like it’s destined to evolve into something a little more terrestrial.

[ Paper ] via [ HERO Lab ]

iRobot has a new Roomba that vacuums and mops—and at $275, it’s a pretty good deal.

Also, if you are a robot vacuum owner, please, please remember to clean the poor thing out from time to time. Here’s how to do it with a Roomba:

[ iRobot ]

The video demonstrates the wave-basin testing of a 43 kg (95 lb) amphibious cycloidal propeller unmanned underwater vehicle (Cyclo-UUV) developed at the Advanced Vertical Flight Laboratory, Texas A&M University. The use of cyclo-propellers allows for 360 degree thrust vectoring for more robust dynamic controllability compared to UUVs with conventional screw propellers.

[ AVFL ]

Sony is still upgrading Aibo with new features, like the ability to listen to your terrible music and dance along.

[ Aibo ]

Operating robots precisely and at high speeds has been a long-standing goal of robotics research. To enable precise and safe dynamic motions, we introduce a four degree-of-freedom (DoF) tendon-driven robot arm. Tendons allow placing the actuation at the base to reduce the robot’s inertia, which we show significantly reduces peak collision forces compared to conventional motor-driven systems. Pairing our robot with pneumatic muscles allows generating high forces and highly accelerated motions, while benefiting from impact resilience through passive compliance.

[ Max Planck Institute ]

Rovers on Mars have previously been caught in loose soils, and turning the wheels dug them deeper, just like a car stuck in sand. To avoid this, Rosalind Franklin has a unique wheel-walking locomotion mode to overcome difficult terrain, as well as autonomous navigation software.

[ ESA ]

Cassie is able to walk on sand, gravel, and rocks inside the Robot Playground at the University of Michigan.

Aww, they stopped before they got to the fun rocks.

[ Paper ] via [ Michigan Robotics ]

Not bad for 2016, right?

[ Namiki Lab ]

MOMO has learned the Bam Yang Gang dance moves with its hand dexterity. :) By analyzing 2D dance videos, we extract detailed hand skeleton data, allowing us to recreate the moves in 3D using a hand model. With this information, MOMO replicates the dance motions with its arm and hand joints.

[ RILAB ] via [ KIMLAB ]

This UPenn GRASP SFI Seminar is from Eric Jang at 1X Technologies, on “Data Engines for Humanoid Robots.”

1X’s mission is to create an abundant supply of physical labor through androids that work alongside humans. I will share some of the progress 1X has been making towards general-purpose mobile manipulation. We have scaled up the number of tasks our androids can do by combining an end-to-end learning strategy with a no-code system to add new robotic capabilities. Our Android Operations team trains their own models on the data they gather themselves, producing an extremely high-quality “farm-to-table” dataset that can be used to learn extremely capable behaviors. I’ll also share an early preview of the progress we’ve been making towards a generalist “World Model” for humanoid robots.

[ UPenn ]

This Microsoft Future Leaders in Robotics and AI Seminar is from Chahat Deep Singh at the University of Maryland, on “Minimal Perception: Enabling Autonomy in Palm-Sized Robots.”

The solution to robot autonomy lies at the intersection of AI, computer vision, computational imaging, and robotics—resulting in minimal robots. This talk explores the challenge of developing a minimal perception framework for tiny robots (less than 6 inches) used in field operations such as space inspections in confined spaces and robot pollination. Furthermore, we will delve into the realm of selective perception, embodied AI, and the future of robot autonomy in the palm of your hands.

[ UMD ]

When we think about robotic manipulation, the default is usually to think about grippers—about robots using manipulators (like fingers or other end effectors) to interact with objects. For most humans, though, interacting with objects can be a lot more complicated, and we use whatever body parts are convenient to help us deal with objects that are large or heavy or awkward.

This somewhat constrained definition of robotic manipulation isn’t robotics’ fault, really. The word “manipulation” itself comes from the Latin for getting handsy with stuff, so there’s a millennium or two’s-worth of hand-related inertia behind the term. The Los Altos, Calif.-based Toyota Research Institute (TRI) is taking a more expansive view with their new humanoid, Punyo, which uses its soft body to help it manipulate objects that would otherwise be pretty much impossible to manage with grippers alone.

“An anthropomorphic embodiment allows us to explore the complexities of social interactions like physical assistance, non-verbal communication, intent, predictability, and trust, to name just a few.” —Alex Alspach, Toyota Research Institute (TRI)

Punyo started off as just a squishy gripper at TRI, but the idea was always to scale up to a big squishy humanoid, hence this concept art of a squishified T-HR3:

This concept image shows what Toyota’s T-HR3 humanoid might look like when bubble-ized.TRI

“We use the term ‘bubble-ized,’ says Alex Alspach, Tech Lead for Punyo at TRI. Alspach tells us that the concept art above doesn’t necessarily reflect what the Punyo humanoid will eventually look like, but “it gave us some physical constraints and a design language. It also reinforced the idea that we are after general hardware and software solutions that can augment and enable both future and existing robots to take full advantage of their whole bodies for manipulation.”

This version of Punyo isn’t quite at “whole” body manipulation, but it can get a lot done using its arms and chest, which are covered with air bladders that provide both sensing and compliance:

Many of those motions look very human-like, because this is how humans manipulate things. Not to throw too much shade at all those humanoid warehouse robots, but as is pointed out in the video above, using just our hands outstretched in front of us to lift things is not how humans do it, because using other parts of our bodies to provide extra support makes lifting easier. This is not a trivial problem for robots, though, because interactions between point contacts that are rigid (like how most robotics manipulators handle the world) are fairly well understood. Once you throw big squishy surfaces into the mix, along with big squishy objects, it’s just not something that most robots are ready for.

“A soft robot does not interact with the world at a single point.” —Russ Tedrake, TRI

“Current robot manipulation evolved from big, strong industrial robots moving car parts and big tools with their end effectors,” Alspach says. “I think it’s wise to take inspiration from the human form—we are strong enough to perform most everyday tasks with our hands, but when a big, heavy object comes around, we need to get creative with how we wrap our arms around it and position our body to lift it.”

Robots are notorious for lifting big and heavy objects, primarily by manipulating them with robot-y form factors in robot-y ways. So what’s so great about the human form factor, anyway? This question goes way beyond Punyo, of course, but we wanted to get the Punyo team’s take on humanoids, and we tossed a couple more questions at them just for fun.

IEEE Spectrum: So why humanoids?

Alspach: The humanoid robot checks a few important boxes. First of all, the environments we intend to work in were built for humans, so the humanoid form helps a robot make use of the spaces and tools around it. Independently, multiple teams at TRI have converged on bi-manual systems for tasks like grocery shopping and food preparation. A chest between these arms is a simple addition that gives us useful contact surfaces for manipulating big objects, too. Furthermore, our Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) team has done, and continues to do, extensive research with older adults, the people we look forward to helping the most. An anthropomorphic embodiment allows us to explore the complexities of social interactions like physical assistance, non-verbal communication, intent, predictability, and trust, to name just a few.

“We focus not on highly precise tasks but on gross, whole-body manipulation, where robust strategies help stabilize and control objects, and a bit of sloppiness can be an asset.” —Alex Alspach, TRI

Does having a bubble-ized robot make anything more difficult for you?

Russ Tedrake, VP of Robotics Research: If you think of your robot as interacting with the world at a point—the standard view from e.g. impedance control—then putting a soft, passive spring in series between your robot and the world does limit performance. It reduces your control bandwidth. But that view misses the more important point. A soft robot does not interact with the world at a single point. Soft materials fundamentally change the dynamics of contact by deforming around the material—generating patch contacts that allow contact forces and moments not achievable by a rigid interaction.

Alspach: Punyo’s softness is extreme compared to other manipulation platforms that may, say, just have rubber pads on their arms or fingers. This compliance means that when we grab an object, it may not settle exactly where we planned for it to, or, for example, if we bump that object up against the edge of a table, it may move within our grasp. For these reasons, tactile sensing is an important part of our solution as we dig into how to measure and control the state of the objects we manipulate. We focus not on highly precise tasks but on gross, whole-body manipulation, where robust strategies help stabilize and control objects, and a bit of sloppiness can be an asset.

Compliance can be accomplished in different ways, including just in software. What’s the importance of having a robot that’s physically squishy rather than just one that acts squishily?

Andrew Beaulieu, Punyo Tech Lead: We do not believe that passive and active compliance should be considered mutually exclusive, and there are several advantages to having a physically squishy robot, especially when we consider having a robot operate near people and in their spaces. Having a robot that can safely make contact with the world opens up avenues of interaction and exploration. Using compliant materials on the robot also allows it to conform to complicated shapes passively in a way that would otherwise involve more complicated articulated or actuated mechanisms. Conforming to the objects allows us to increase the contact patch with the object and distribute the forces, usually creating a more robust grasp. These compliant surfaces allow us to research planning and control methods that might be less precise, rely less on accurate object localization, or use hardware with less precise control or sensing.

What’s it like to be hugged by Punyo?

Kate Tsui, Punyo HRI Tech Lead: Although Punyo isn’t a social robot, a surprising amount of emotion comes through its hug, and it feels quite comforting. A hug from Punyo feels like a long, sustained, snug squeeze from a close friend you haven’t seen for a long time and don’t want to let go.

A series of concept images shows situations in which whole body manipulation might be useful in the home.TRI

(Interview transcript ends.)

Softness seems like it could be a necessary condition for bipedal humanoids working in close proximity to humans, especially in commercial or home environments where interactions are less structured and predictable. “I think more robots using their whole body to manipulate is coming soon, especially with the recent explosion of humanoids outside of academic labs,” Alspach says. “Capable, general-purpose robotic manipulation is a competitive field, and using the whole body unlocks the ability to efficiently manipulate large, heavy, and unwieldy objects.”

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

RoboCup German Open: 17–21 April 2024, KASSEL, GERMANYAUVSI XPONENTIAL 2024: 22–25 April 2024, SAN DIEGO, CAEurobot Open 2024: 8–11 May 2024, LA ROCHE-SUR-YON, FRANCEICRA 2024: 13–17 May 2024, YOKOHAMA, JAPANRoboCup 2024: 17–22 July 2024, EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS

Enjoy today’s videos!

Columbia engineers build Emo, a silicon-clad robotic face that makes eye contact and uses two AI models to anticipate and replicate a person’s smile before the person actually smiles—a major advance in robots predicting human facial expressions accurately, improving interactions, and building trust between humans and robots.

[ Columbia ]

Researchers at Stanford University have invented a way to augment electric motors to make them much more efficient at performing dynamic movements through a new type of actuator, a device that uses energy to make things move. Their actuator, published 20 March in Science Robotics, uses springs and clutches to accomplish a variety of tasks with a fraction of the energy usage of a typical electric motor.

[ Stanford ]

I’m sorry, but the world does not need more drummers.

[ Fourier Intelligence ]

Always good to see NASA’s Valakyrie doing research.

[ NASA ]

In challenging terrains, constructing structures such as antennas and cable-car masts often requires the use of helicopters to transport loads via ropes.Challenging this paradigm, we present Geranos: a specialized multirotor Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) designed to enhance aerial transportation and assembly. Our experimental demonstration mimicking antenna/cable-car mast installations showcases Geranos ability in stacking poles (3 kilograms, 2 meters long) with remarkable sub-5 centimeter placement accuracy, without the need of human manual intervention.

[ Paper ]

Flyability’s Elios 2 in November 2020 helped researchers inspect Reactor 5 at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site to determine whether any uranium was present in the area. Prior to this, Reactor 5 had not been investigated since the disaster in 1986.

[ Flyability ]

Various musculoskeletal humanoids have been developed so far. While these humanoids have the advantage of their flexible and redundant bodies that mimic the human body, they are still far from being applied to real-world tasks. One of the reasons for this is the difficulty of bipedal walking in a flexible body. Thus, we developed a musculoskeletal wheeled robot, Musashi-W, by combining a wheeled base and musculoskeletal upper limbs for real-world applications.

[ Paper ]

Thanks, Kento!

A recent trend in industrial robotics is to have robotic manipulators working side-by-side with human operators. A challenging aspect of this coexistence is that the robot is required to reliably solve complex path-planning problems in a dynamically changing environment. To ensure the safety of the human operator while simultaneously achieving efficient task realization, this paper introduces... a scheme [that] can steer the robot arm to the desired end-effector pose in the presence of actuator saturation, limited joint ranges, speed limits, a cluttered static obstacle environment, and moving human collaborators.

[ Paper ]

Thanks, Kelly!

Our mobile manipulator Digit worked continuously for 26 hours split over the 3.5 days of Modex 2024, in Atlanta. Everything was tracked and coordinated by our newest product, Agility Arc, a cloud automation platform.

[ Agility ]

We’re building robots that can keep people out of harm’s way: Spot enables operators to remotely investigate and de-escalate hazardous situations. Robots have been used in government and public safety applications for decades but Spot’s unmatched mobility and intuitive interface is changing incident response for departments in the field today.

[ Boston Dynamics ]

This paper presents a Bistable Aerial Transformer (BAT) robot, a novel morphing hybrid aerial vehicle (HAV) that switches between quadrotor and fixed-wing modes via rapid acceleration and without any additional actuation beyond those required for normal flight.

[ Paper ]

Disney’s Baymax frequently takes the spotlight in many research presentations dedicated to soft and secure physical human-robot interaction (pHRI). KIMLAB’s recent paper in TRO showcases a step towards realizing the Baymax concept by enveloping the skeletons of PAPRAS (Plug And Play Robotic Arm System) with soft skins and utilizing them for sensory functions.

[ Paper ]

Catch me if you can!

[ CVUT ]

Deep Reinforcement Learning (RL) has demonstrated impressive results in solving complex robotic tasks such as quadruped locomotion. Yet, current solvers fail to produce efficient policies respecting hard constraints. In this work, we advocate for integrating constraints into robot learning and present Constraints as Terminations (CaT), a novel constrained RL algorithm.

[ CaT ]

Why hasn’t the dream of having a robot at home to do your chores become a reality yet? With three decades of research expertise in the field, roboticist Ken Goldberg sheds light on the clumsy truth about robots—and what it will take to build more dexterous machines to work in a warehouse or help out at home.

[ TED ]

Designed as a technology demonstration that would perform up to five experimental test flights over a span of 30 days, the Mars helicopter surpassed expectations—repeatedly—only recently completing its mission after having logged an incredible 72 flights over nearly three years. Join us for a live talk to learn how Ingenuity’s team used resourcefulness and creativity to transform the rotorcraft from a successful tech demo into a helpful scout for the Perseverance rover, ultimately proving the value of aerial exploration for future interplanetary missions.

[ JPL ]

Please join us for a lively panel discussion featuring GRASP Faculty members Dr. Pratik Chaudhari, Dr. Dinesh Jayaraman, and Dr. Michael Posa. This panel will be moderated by Dr. Kostas Daniilidis around the current hot topic of AI Embodied in Robotics.

[ Penn Engineering ]

At NVIDIA GTC last week, Boston Dynamics CTO Aaron Saunders gave a talk about deploying AI in real world robots—namely, how Spot is leveraging reinforcement learning to get better at locomotion (We spoke with Saunders last year about robots falling over). And Spot has gotten a lot better—a Spot robot takes a tumble on average once every 50 kilometers, even as the Spot fleet collectively walks enough to circle the Earth every three months.

That fleet consists of a lot of commercial deployments, which is impressive for any mobile robot, but part of the reason for that is because the current version of Spot is really not intended for robotics research, even though over 100 universities are home to at least one Spot. Boston Dynamics has not provided developer access to Spot’s joints, meaning that anyone who has wanted to explore quadrupedal mobility has had to find some other platform that’s a bit more open and allows for some experimentation.

Boston Dynamics is now announcing a new variant of Spot that includes a low-level application programming interface (API) that gives joint-level control of the robot. This will give (nearly) full control over how Spot moves its legs, which is a huge opportunity for the robotics community, since we’ll now be able to find out exactly what Spot is capable of. For example, we’ve already heard from a credible source that Spot is capable of running much, much faster than Boston Dynamics has publicly shown, and it’s safe to assume that a speedier Spot is just the start.

An example of a new Spot capability when a custom locomotion controller can be used on the robot.Boston Dynamics

When you buy a Spot robot from Boston Dynamics, it arrives already knowing how to walk. It’s very, very good at walking. Boston Dynamics is so confident in Spot’s walking ability that you’re only allowed high-level control of the robot: You tell it where to go, it decides how to get there. If you want to do robotics research using Spot as a mobility platform, that’s totally fine, but if you want to do research on quadrupedal locomotion, it hasn’t been possible with Spot. But that’s changing.

The Spot RL Researcher Kit is a collaboration between Boston Dynamics, Nvidia, and the AI Institute. It includes a joint-level control API, an Nvidia Jetson AGX Orin payload, and a simulation environment for Spot based on Nvidia Isaac Lab. The kit will be officially released later this year, but Boston Dynamics is starting a slow rollout through an early adopter beta program.

From a certain perspective, Boston Dynamics did this whole thing with Spot backwards by first creating a commercial product and only then making it into a research platform. “At the beginning, we felt like it would be great to include that research capability, but that it wasn’t going to drive the adoption of this technology,” Saunders told us after his GTC session. Instead, Boston Dynamics first focused on getting lots of Spots out into the world in a useful way, and only now, when the company feels like they’ve gotten there, is the time right to unleash a fully-featured research version of Spot. “It was really just getting comfortable with our current product that enabled us to go back and say, ‘how can we now provide people with the kind of access that they’re itching for?’”

Getting to this point has taken a huge amount of work for Boston Dynamics. Predictably, Spot started out as a novelty for most early adopters, becoming a project for different flavors of innovation groups within businesses rather than an industrial asset. “I think there’s been a change there,” Saunders says. “We’re working with operational customers a lot more, and the composure of our sales is shifting away from being dominated by early adopters and we’re starting to see repeat sales and interest in larger fleets of robots.”

Deploying and supporting a large fleet of Spots is one of the things that allowed Boston Dynamics to feel comfortable offering a research version. Researchers are not particularly friendly to their robots, because the goal of research is often to push the envelope of what’s possible. And part of that process includes getting very well acquainted with what turns out to be not possible, resulting in robots that end up on the floor, sometimes in pieces. The research version of Spot will include a mandatory Spot Care Service Plan, which exists to serve commercial customers but will almost certainly provide more value to the research community who want to see what kinds of crazy things they can get Spot to do.

Exactly how crazy those crazy things will be remains to be seen. Boston Dynamics is starting out with a beta program for the research Spots partially because they’re not quite sure yet how many safeguards to put in place within the API. “We need to see where the problems are,” Saunders says. “We still have a little work to do to really hone in how our customers are going to use it.” Deciding how much Spot should be able to put itself at risk in the name of research may be a difficult question to answer, but I’m pretty sure that the beta program participants are going to do their best to find out how much tolerance Boston Dynamics has for Spot shenanigans. I just hope that whatever happens, they share as much video of it as possible.

The Spot Early Adopter Program for the new RL Researcher Kit is open for applications here.

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

Eurobot Open 2024: 8–11 May 2024, LA ROCHE-SUR-YON, FRANCEICRA 2024: 13–17 May 2024, YOKOHAMA, JAPANRoboCup 2024: 17–22 July 2024, EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS

Enjoy today’s videos!

See NVIDIA’s journey from pioneering advanced autonomous vehicle hardware and simulation tools to accelerated perception and manipulation for autonomous mobile robots and industrial arms, culminating in the next wave of cutting-edge AI for humanoid robots.


In release 4.0, we advanced Spot’s locomotion abilities thanks to the power of reinforcement learning. Paul Domanico, Robotics Engineer at Boston Dynamics talks through how Spot’s hybrid approach of combining reinforcement learning with model predictive control creates an even more stable robot in the most antagonistic environments.

[ Boston Dynamics ]

We’re excited to share our latest progress on teaching EVEs general-purpose skills. Everything in the video is all autonomous, all 1X speed, all controlled with a single set of neural network weights.

[ 1X ]

What I find interesting about the Unitree H1 doing a standing flip is where it decides to put its legs.

[ Unitree ]

At the MODEX Exposition in March of 2024, Pickle Robot demonstrated picking freight from a random pile similar to what you see in a messy truck trailer after it has bounced across many miles of highway. The piles of boxes were never the same and the demonstration was run live in front of crowds of onlookers 25 times over 4 days. No other robotic trailer/container unloading system has yet to demonstrate this ability to pick from unstructured piles.

[ Pickle ]

RunRu is a car-like robot, a robot-like car, with autonomy, sociability, and operability. This is a new type of personal vehicle that aims to create a “Jinba-Ittai” relationship with its passengers, who are not only always assertive, but also sometimes whine.


Verdie went to GTC this year and won the hearts of people but maybe not the other robots.

[ Electric Sheep ]

The “DEEPRobotics AI+” merges AI capabilities with robotic software systems to continuously boost embodied intelligence. The showcased achievement is a result of training a new AI and software system.

[ DEEP Robotics ]

If you want to collect data for robot grasping, using Stretch and a pair of tongs is about as affordable as it gets.

[ Hello Robot ]

The real reason why Digit’s legs look backwards is so that it doesn’t bang its shins taking GPUs out of the oven.

Meanwhile, some of us can bake our GPUs without even needing an oven.

[ Agility ]

P1 is LimX Dynamics’ innovative point-foot biped robot, serving as an important platform for the systematic development and modular testing of reinforcement learning. It is utilized to advance the research and iteration of basic biped locomotion abilities. The success of P1 in conquering forest terrain is a testament to LimX Dynamics’ systematic R&D in reinforcement learning.

[ LimX ]

And now, this.

[ Suzumori Endo Lab ]

Cooking in kitchens is fun. BUT doing it collaboratively with two robots is even more satisfying! We introduce MOSAIC, a modular framework that coordinates multiple robots to closely collaborate and cook with humans via natural language interaction and a repository of skills.

[ Cornell ]

neoDavid is a Robust Humanoid with Dexterous Manipulation Skills, developed at DLR. The main focus in the development of neoDavid is to get as close to human capabilities as possible—especially in terms of dynamics, dexterity and robustness.

[ DLR ]

Welcome to our customer spotlight video series where we showcase some of the remarkable robots that our customers have been working on. In this episode we showcase three Clearpath Robotics UGVs that our customers are using to create robotic assistants for three different applications.

[ Clearpath ]

This video presents KIMLAB’s new three-fingered robotic hand, featuring soft tactile sensors for enhanced grasping capabilities. Leveraging cost-effective 3D printing materials, it ensures robustness and operational efficiency.


Various perception-aware planning approaches have attempted to enhance the state estimation accuracy during maneuvers, while the feature matchability among frames, a crucial factor influencing estimation accuracy, has often been overlooked. In this paper, we present APACE, an Agile and Perception-Aware trajeCtory gEneration framework for quadrotors aggressive flight, that takes into account feature matchability during trajectory planning.

[ Paper ] via [ HKUST ]

In this video, we see Samuel Kunz, the pilot of the RSL Assistance Robot Race team from ETH Zurich, as he participates in the CYBATHLON Challenges 2024. Samuel completed all four designated tasks—retrieving a parcel from a mailbox, using a toothbrush, hanging a scarf on a clothesline, and emptying a dishwasher—with the help of an assistance robot. He achieved a perfect score of 40 out of 40 points and secured first place in the race, completing the tasks in 6.34 minutes.


Florian Ledoux is a wildlife photographer with a deep love for the Arctic and its wildlife. Using the Mavic 3 Pro, he steps onto the ice ready to capture the raw beauty and the stories of this chilly, remote place.

[ DJI ]

Applying electricity for a few seconds to a soft material, such as a slice of raw tomato or chicken, can strongly bond it to a hard object, such as a graphite slab, without any tape or glue, a new study finds. This unexpected effect is also reversible—switching the direction of the electric current often easily separates the materials, scientists at the University of Maryland say. Potential applications for such “electroadhesion,” which can even work underwater, may include improved biomedical implants and biologically inspired robots.

“It is surprising that this effect was not discovered earlier,” says Srinivasa Raghavan, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Maryland. “This is a discovery that could have been made pretty much since we’ve had batteries.”

In nature, soft materials such as living tissues are often bonded to hard objects such as bones. Previous research explored chemical ways to accomplish this feat, such as with glues that mimic how mussels stick to rocks and boats. However, these bonds are usually irreversible.

They tried a number of different soft materials, such as tomato, apple, beef, chicken, pork and gelatin...

Previously, Raghavan and his colleagues discovered that electricity could make gels stick to biological tissue, a discovery that might one day lead to gel patches that can help repair wounds. In the new study, instead of bonding two soft materials together, they explored whether electricity could make a soft material stick to a hard object.

The scientists began with a pair of graphite electrodes (consisting of an anode and a cathode) and an acrylamide gel. They applied five volts across the gel for three minutes. Surprisingly, they found the gel strongly bonded onto the graphite anode. Attempts to wrench the gel and electrode apart would typically break the gel, leaving pieces of it on the electrode. The bond could apparently last indefinitely after the voltage was removed, with the researchers keeping samples of gel and electrode stuck together for months.

Howeve, when the researchers switched the polarity of the current, the acrylamide gel detached from the anode. Instead, it adhered onto the other electrode.

Raghavan and his colleagues experimented with this newfound electroadhesion effect a number of different ways. They tried a number of different soft materials, such as tomato, apple, beef, chicken, pork and gelatin, as well as different electrodes, such as copper, lead, tin, nickel, iron, zinc and titanium. They also varied the strength of the voltage and the amount of time it was applied.

The researchers found the amount of salt in the soft material played a strong role in the electroadhesion effect. The salt makes the soft material conductive, and high concentrations of salt could lead gels to adhere to electrodes within seconds.

“It’s surprising how simple this effect is, and how widespread it might be”

The scientists also discovered that metals that are better at giving up their electrons, such as copper, lead and tin, are better at electroadhesion. Conversely, metals that hold onto their electrons strongly, such as nickel, iron, zinc and titanium, fared poorly.

These findings suggest that electroadhesion arises from chemical bonds between the electrode and soft material after they exchange electrons. Depending on the nature of the hard and soft materials, adhesion happened at the anode, cathode, both electrodes, or neither. Boosting the strength of the voltage and the amount of time it was applied typically increased adhesion strength.

“It’s surprising how simple this effect is, and how widespread it might be,” Raghavan says.

Potential applications for electroadhesion may include improving biomedical implants—the ability to bond tissue to steel or titanium could help reinforce implants, the researchers say. Electroadhesion may also help create biologically inspired robots with stiff bone-like skeletons and soft muscle-like elements, they add. They also suggest electroadhesion could lead to new kinds of batteries where soft electrolytes are bonded to hard electrodes, although it’s not clear if such adhesion would make much of a difference to a battery’s performance, Raghavan says.

The researchers also discovered that electroadhesion could occur underwater, which they suggest could open up an even wider range of possible applications for this effect. Typical adhesives do not work underwater, since many cannot spread onto solid surfaces that are submerged in liquids, and even those that can usually only form weak adhesive bonds due to interference from the liquid.

“It’s hard for me to pinpoint one real application for this discovery,” Raghavan says. “It reminds me of the researchers who made the discoveries behind Velcro or Post-it notes—the applications were not obvious to them when the discoveries were made, but the applications did arise over time.”

The scientists detailed their findings online 13 March in the journal ACS Central Science.

Nvidia’s ongoing GTC developer conference in San Jose is, unsurprisingly, almost entirely about AI this year. But in between the AI developments, Nvidia has also made a couple of significant robotics announcements.

First, there’s Project GR00T (with each letter and number pronounced individually so as not to invoke the wrath of Disney), a foundation model for humanoid robots. And secondly, Nvidia has committed to be the founding platinum member of the Open Source Robotics Alliance, a new initiative from the Open Source Robotics Foundation intended to make sure that the Robot Operating System (ROS), a collection of open-source software libraries and tools, has the support that it needs to flourish.


First, let’s talk about GR00T (short for “Generalist Robot 00 Technology”). The way that Nvidia presenters enunciated it letter-by-letter during their talks strongly suggests that in private they just say “Groot.” So the rest of us can also just say “Groot” as far as I’m concerned.

As a “general-purpose foundation model for humanoid robots,” GR00T is intended to provide a starting point for specific humanoid robots to do specific tasks. As you might expect from something being presented for the first time at an Nvidia keynote, it’s awfully vague at the moment, and we’ll have to get into it more later on. Here’s pretty much everything useful that Nvidia has told us so far:

“Building foundation models for general humanoid robots is one of the most exciting problems to solve in AI today,” said Jensen Huang, founder and CEO of NVIDIA. “The enabling technologies are coming together for leading roboticists around the world to take giant leaps towards artificial general robotics.”

Robots powered by GR00T... will be designed to understand natural language and emulate movements by observing human actions—quickly learning coordination, dexterity and other skills in order to navigate, adapt and interact with the real world.

This sounds good, but that “will be” is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Like, there’s a very significant “how” missing here. More specifically, we’ll need a better understanding of what’s underlying this foundation model—is there real robot data under there somewhere, or is it based on a massive amount of simulation? Are the humanoid robotic companies involved contributing data to improve GR00T, or instead training their own models based on it? It’s certainly notable that Nvidia is name-dropping most of the heavy-hitters in commercial humanoids, including 1X Technologies, Agility Robotics, Apptronik, Boston Dynamics, Figure AI, Fourier Intelligence, Sanctuary AI, Unitree Robotics, and XPENG Robotics. We’ll be able to check in with some of those folks directly this week to hopefully learn more.

On the hardware side, Nvidia is also announcing a new computing platform called Jetson Thor:

Jetson Thor was created as a new computing platform capable of performing complex tasks and interacting safely and naturally with people and machines. It has a modular architecture optimized for performance, power and size. The SoC includes a next-generation GPU based on NVIDIA Blackwell architecture with a transformer engine delivering 800 teraflops of 8-bit floating point AI performance to run multimodal generative AI models like GR00T. With an integrated functional safety processor, a high-performance CPU cluster and 100GB of ethernet bandwidth, it significantly simplifies design and integration efforts.

Speaking of Nvidia’s Blackwell architecture—today the company also unveiled its B200 Blackwell GPU. And to round out the announcements, the chip foundry TSMC and Synopsys, an electronic design automation company, each said they will be moving Nvidia’s inverse lithography tool, cuLitho, into production.

The Open Source Robotics Alliance

The other big announcement is actually from the Open Source Robotics Foundation, which is launching the Open Source Robotics Alliance (OSRA), a “new initiative to strengthen the governance of our open-source robotics software projects and ensure the health of the Robot Operating System (ROS) Suite community for many years to come.” Nvidia is an inaugural platinum member of the OSRA, but they’re not alone—other platinum members include Intrinsic and Qualcomm. Other significant members include Apex, Clearpath Robotics, Ekumen, eProsima, PickNik, Silicon Valley Robotics, and Zettascale.

“The [Open Source Robotics Foundation] had planned to restructure its operations by broadening community participation and expanding its impact in the larger ROS ecosystem,” explains Vanessa Yamzon Orsi, CEO of the Open Source Robotics Foundation. “The sale of [Open Source Robotics Corporation] was the first step towards that vision, and the launch of the OSRA is the next big step towards that change.”

We had time for a brief Q&A with Orsi to better understand how this will affect the ROS community going forward.

You structured the OSRA to have a mixed membership and meritocratic model like the Linux Foundation—what does that mean, exactly?

Vanessa Yamzon Orsi: We have modeled the OSRA to allow for paths to participation in its activities through both paid memberships (for organizations and their representatives) and the community members who support the projects through their contributions. The mixed model enables participation in the way most appropriate for each organization or individual: contributing funding as a paying member, contributing directly to project development, or both.

What are some benefits for the ROS ecosystem that we can look forward to through OSRA?

Orsi: We expect the OSRA to benefit the OSRF’s projects in three significant ways.

  • By providing a stable stream of funding to cover the maintenance and development of the ROS ecosystem.
  • By encouraging greater community involvement in development through open processes and open, meritocratic status achievement.
  • By bringing greater community involvement in governance and ensuring that all stakeholders have a voice in decision-making.

Why will this be a good thing for ROS users?

Orsi: The OSRA will ensure that ROS and the suite of open source projects under the stewardship of Open Robotics will continue to be supported and strengthened for years to come. By providing organized governance and oversight, clearer paths to community participation, and financial support, it will provide stability and structure to the projects while enabling continued development.

About a year ago, Zipline introduced Platform 2, an approach to precision urban drone delivery that combines a large hovering drone with a smaller package-delivery “Droid.” Lowered on a tether from the belly of its parent Zip drone, the Droid contains thrusters and sensors (plus a 2.5- to 3.5-kilogram payload) to reliably navigate itself to a delivery area of just one meter in diameter. The Zip, meanwhile, safely remains hundreds of meters up. After depositing its payload, the Droid rises back up to the drone on its tether, and off they go.

At first glance, the sensor and thruster-packed Droid seems complicated enough to be bordering on impractical, especially when you consider the relative simplicity of other drone delivery solutions, which commonly just drop the package itself on a tether from a hovering drone. I’ve been writing about robots long enough that I’m suspicious of robotic solutions that appear to be overengineered, since that’s always a huge temptation with robotics. Like, is this really the best way of solving a problem, or is it just the coolest way?

We know the folks at Zipline pretty well, though, and they’ve certainly made creative engineering work for them, as we saw when we visited one of their “nests” in rural Rwanda. So as Zipline nears the official launch of Platform 2, we spoke with Zipline cofounder and CTO Keenan Wyrobek, Platform 2 lead Zoltan Laszlo, and industrial designer Gregoire Vandenbussche to understand exactly why they think this is the best way of solving precision urban drone delivery.

First, a quick refresher. Here’s what the delivery sequence with the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) Zip and the Droid looks like:

The system has a service radius of about 16 kilometers (10 miles), and it can make deliveries to outdoor spaces of “any meaningful size.” Visual sensors on the Droid find the delivery site and check for obstacles on the way down, while the thrusters compensate for wind and movement of the parent drone. Since the big VTOL Zip remains well out of the way, deliveries are fast, safe, and quiet. But it takes two robots to pull off the delivery rather than just one.

On the other end is the infrastructure required to load and charge these drones. Zipline’s Platform 1 drones require a dedicated base with relatively large launch and recovery systems. With Platform 2, the drone drops the Droid into a large chute attached to the side of a building so that the Droid can be reloaded, after which it pulls the Droid out again and flies off to make the delivery:

“We think it’s the best delivery experience. Not the best drone delivery experience, the best delivery experience,” Zipline’s Wyrobek tells us. That may be true, but the experience also has to be practical and sustainable for Zipline to be successful, so we asked the Zipline team to explain the company’s approach to precision urban delivery.

Zipline on:

IEEE Spectrum: What problems is Platform 2 solving, and why is it necessary to solve those problems in this specific way?

Keenan Wyrobek: There are literally billions of last-mile deliveries happening every year in [the United States] alone, and our customers have been asking for years for something that can deliver to their homes. With our long-range platform, Platform 1, we can float a package down into your yard on a parachute, but that takes some space. And so one half of the big design challenge was how to get our deliveries precise enough, while the other half was to develop a system that will bolt on to existing facilities, which Platform 1 doesn’t do.

Zoltan Laszlo: Platform 1 can deliver within an area of about two parking spaces. As we started to actually look at the data in urban areas using publicly available lidar surveys, we found that two parking spaces serves a bit more than half the market. We want to be a universal delivery service.

But with a delivery area of 1 meter in diameter, which is what we’re actually hitting in our delivery demonstrations for Platform 2, that gets us into the high 90s for the percentage of people that we can deliver to.

Wyrobek: When we say “urban,” what we’re talking about is three-story sprawl, which is common in many large cities around the world. And we wanted to make sure that our deliveries could be precise enough for places like that.

There are some existing solutions for precision aerial delivery that have been operating at scale with some success, typically by winching packages to the ground from a VTOL drone. Why develop your own technique rather than just going with something that has already been shown to work?

Laszlo: Winching down is the natural extension of being able to hover in place, and when we first started, we were like, “Okay, we’re just going to winch down. This will be great, super easy.”

So we went to our test site in Half Moon Bay [on the Northern California coast] and built a quick prototype of a winch system. But as soon as we lowered a box down on the winch, the wind started blowing it all over the place. And this was from the height of our lift, which is less than 10 meters up. We weren’t even able to stay inside two parking spaces, which told us that something was broken with our approach.

The aircraft can sense the wind, so we thought we’d be able to find the right angle for the delivery and things like that. But the wind where the aircraft is may be different from the wind nearer the ground. We realized that unless we’re delivering to an open field, a package that does not have active wind compensation is going to be very hard to control. We’re targeting high-90th percentile in terms of availability due to weather—even if it’s a pretty blustery day, we still want to be able to deliver.

Wyrobek: This was a wild insight when we really understood that unless it’s a perfect day, using a winch actually takes almost as much space as we use for Platform 1 floating a package down on a parachute.

Engineering test footage of Zipline’s Platform 2 docking system at their test site in Half Moon Bay in California.

How did you arrive at this particular delivery solution for Platform 2?

Laszlo: I don’t remember whose idea it was, but we were playing with a bunch of different options. Putting thrusters on the tether wasn’t even the craziest idea. We had our Platform 1 aircraft, which was reliable, so we started with looking at ways to just make that aircraft deliver more precisely. There was only so much more we could do with passive parachutes, but what does an active, steerable parachute look like? There are remote-controlled paragliding toys out there that we tested, with mixed results—the challenge is to minimize the smarts in your parachute, because there’s a chance you won’t get it back. So then we started some crazy brainstorming about how to reliably retrieve the parachute.

Wyrobek: One idea was that the parachute would come with a self-return envelope that you could stick in the mail. Another idea was that the parachute would be steered by a little drone, and when the package got dropped off, the drone would reel the parachute in and then fly back up into the Zip.

Laszlo: But when we realized that the package has to be able to steer itself, that meant the Zip doesn’t need to be active. The Zip doesn’t need to drive the package, it doesn’t even need to see the package, it just needs to be a point up in the sky that’s holding the package. That let us move from having the Zip 50 feet up, to having it 300 feet up, which is important because it’s a big, heavy drone that we don’t want in our customer’s space. And the final step was adding enough smarts to the thing coming down into your space to figure out where exactly to deliver to, and of course to handle the wind.

Once you knew what you needed to do, how did you get to the actual design of the droid?

Gregoire Vandenbussche: Zipline showed me pretty early on that they were ready to try crazy ideas, and from my experience, that’s extremely rare. When the idea of having this controllable tether with a package attached to it came up, one of my first thoughts was that from a user standpoint, nothing like this exists. And the difficulty of designing something that doesn’t exist is that people will try to identify it according to what they know. So we had to find a way to drive that thinking towards something positive.

Early Droid concept sketches by designer Gregoire Vandenbussche featured legs that would fold up after delivery.Zipline

First we thought about putting words onto it, like “hello” or something, but the reality is that we’re an international company and we need to be able to work everywhere. But there’s one thing that’s common to everyone, and that’s emotions—people are able to recognize certain things as being approachable and adorable, so going in that direction felt like the right thing to do. However, being able to design a robot that gives you that kind of emotion but also flies was quite a challenge. We took inspiration from other things that move in 3D, like sea mammals—things that people will recognize even without thinking about it.

Vandenbussche’s sketches show how the design of the Droid was partially inspired by dolphins.Zipline

Now that you say it, I can definitely see the sea mammal inspiration in the drone.

Vandenbussche: There are two aspects of sea mammals that work really well for our purpose. One of them is simplicity of shape; sea mammals don’t have all that many details. Also, they tend to be optimized for performance. Ultimately, we need that, because we need to be able to fly. And we need to be able to convey to people that the drone is under control. So having something you can tell is moving forward or turning or moving away was very helpful.

Wyrobek: One other insight that we had is that Platform 2 needs to be small to fit into tight delivery spaces, and it needs to feel small when it comes into your personal space, but it also has to be big enough inside to be a useful delivery platform. We tried to leverage the chubby but cute look that baby seals have going on.

The design journey was pretty fun. Gregoire would spend two or three days coming up with a hundred different concept sketches. We’d do a bunch of brainstorming, and then Gregoire would come up with a whole bunch of new directions, and we’d keep exploring. To be clear, no one would describe our functional prototypes from back then as “cute.” But through all this iteration eventually we ended up in an awesome place.

And how do you find that place? When do you know that your robot is just cute enough?

One iteration of the Droid, Vandenbussche determined, looked too technical and intimidating.Zipline

Vandenbussche: It’s finding the balance around what’s realistic and functional. I like to think of industrial design as taking all of the constraints and kind of playing Tetris with them until you get a result that ideally satisfies everybody. I remember at one point looking at where we were, and feeling like we were focusing too much on performance and missing that emotional level. So, we went back a little bit to say, where can we bring this back from looking like a highly technical machine to something that can give you a feeling of approachability?

Laszlo: We spent a fair bit of time on the controls and behaviors of the droid to make sure that it moves in a very approachable and predictable way, so that you know where it’s going ahead of time and it doesn’t behave in unexpected ways. That’s pretty important for how people perceive it.

We did a lot of work on how the droid would descend and approach the delivery site. One concept had the droid start to lower down well before the Zip was hovering directly overhead. We had simulations and renderings, and it looked great. We could do the whole delivery in barely over 20 seconds. But even if the package is far away from you, it still looks scary because [the Zip is] moving faster than you would expect, and you can’t tell exactly where it’s going to deliver. So we deleted all that code, and now it just comes straight down, and people don’t back away from the Droid anymore. They’re just like, “Oh, okay, cool.”

How did you design the thrusters to enable these pinpoint deliveries?

Early tests of the Droid centered around a two-fan version.Zipline

Laszlo: With the thrusters, we knew we wanted to maximize the size of at least one of the fans, because we were almost always going to have to deal with wind. We’re trying to be as quiet as we can, so the key there is to maximize the area of the propeller. Our leading early design was just a box with two fans on it:

Two fans with unobstructed flow meant that it moved great, but the challenge of fitting it inside another aircraft was going to be painful. And it looked big, even though it wasn’t actually that big.

Vandenbussche: It was also pretty intimidating when you had those two fans facing you and the Droid coming toward you.

A single steerable fan [left] that acted like a rudder was simpler in some ways, but as the fan got larger, the gyroscopic effects became hard to manage. Instead of one steerable fan, how about two steerable fans? [right] Omnidirectional motion was possible with this setup, but packaging it inside of a Zip didn’t work.Zipline

Laszlo: We then started looking at configurations with a main fan and a second smaller fan, with the bigger fan at the back pushing forward and the smaller fan at the front providing thrust for turning. The third fan we added relatively late because we didn’t want to add it at all. But we found that [with two fans] the droid would have to spin relatively quickly to align to shifting winds, whereas with a third fan we can just push sideways in the direction that we need.

What kind of intelligence does the Droid have?

The current design of Zipline’s Platform 2 Droid is built around a large thruster in the rear and two smaller thrusters at the front and back.Zipline

Wyrobek: The Droid has its own little autopilot, and there’s a very simple communications system between the two vehicles. You may think that it’s a really complex coordinated control problem, but it’s not: The Zip just kind of hangs out, and the Droid takes care of the delivery. The sensing challenge is for the Droid to find trees and powerlines and things like that, and then find a good delivery site.

Was there ever a point at which you were concerned that the size and weight and complexity would not be worth it?

Wyrobek: Our mindset was to fail fast, to try things and do what we needed to do to convince ourselves that it wasn’t a good path. What’s fun about this kind of iterative process is oftentimes, you try things and you realize that actually, this is better than we thought.

Laszlo: We first thought about the Droid as a little bit of a tax, in that it’s costing us extra weight. But if your main drone can stay high enough up that it avoids trees and buildings, then it can just float around up there. If it gets pushed around by the wind, it doesn’t matter because the Droid can compensate.

Wyrobek: Keeping the Zip at altitude is a big win in many ways. It doesn’t have to spend energy station-keeping, descending, and then ascending again. We just do that with the much smaller Droid, which also makes the hovering phase much shorter. It’s also much more efficient to control the small droid than the large Zip. And having all of the sensors on the Droid very close to the area that you’re delivering to makes that problem easier as well. It may look like a more complex system from the outside, but from the inside, it’s basically making all the hardest problems much easier.

Over the past year, Zipline has set up a bunch of partnerships to make residential deliveries to consumers using Droid starting in 2024, including prescriptions from Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, medical products from WellSpan Health in Pennsylvania, tasty food from Mendocino Farms in California, and a little bit of everything from Walmart starting in Dallas. Zipline’s plan is to kick things off with Platform 2 later this year.

Legendary MIT roboticist Daniela Rus has published a new book called The Heart and the Chip: Our Bright Future with Robots. “There is a robotics revolution underway,” Rus says in the book’s introduction, “one that is already causing massive changes in our society and in our lives.” She’s quite right, of course, and although some of us have been feeling that this is true for decades, it’s arguably more true right now than it ever has been. But robots are difficult and complicated, and the way that their progress is intertwined with the humans that make them and work with them means that these changes won’t come quickly or easily. Rus’ experience gives her a deep and nuanced perspective on robotics’ past and future, and we’re able to share a little bit of that with you here.

Daniela Rus: Should roboticists consider subscribing to their own Hippocratic oath?

The following excerpt is from Chapter 14, entitled “What Could Go Wrong?” Which, let’s be honest, is the right question to ask (and then attempt to conclusively answer) whenever you’re thinking about sending a robot out into the real world.

At several points in this book I’ve mentioned the fictional character Tony Stark, who uses technology to transform himself into the superhero Iron Man. To me this character is a tremendous inspiration, yet I often remind myself that in the story, he begins his career as an MIT-­trained weapons manufacturer and munitions developer. In the 2008 film Iron Man, he changes his ways because he learns that his company’s specialized weapons are being used by terrorists.

Remember, robots are tools. Inherently, they are neither good nor bad; it’s how we choose to use them that matters. In 2022, aerial drones were used as weapons on both sides of devastating wars. Anyone can purchase a drone, but there are regulations for using drones that vary between and within different countries. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration requires that all drones be registered, with a few exceptions, including toy models weighing less than 250 grams. The rules also depend on whether the drone is flown for fun or for business. Regardless of regulations, anyone could use a flying robot to inflict harm, just like anyone can swing a hammer to hurt someone instead of driving a nail into a board. Yet drones are also being used to deliver critical medical supplies in hard-­to-­reach areas, track the health of forests, and help scientists like Roger Payne monitor and advocate for at-­risk species. My group collaborated with the modern dance company Pilobolus to stage the first theatrical performance featuring a mix of humans and drones back in 2012, with a robot called Seraph. So, drones can be dancers, too. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s prescient science fiction novel The Ministry for the Future, a swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles is deployed to crash an airliner. I can imagine a flock of these mechanical birds being used in many good ways, too. At the start of its war against Ukraine, Russia limited its citizens’ access to unbiased news and information in hopes of controlling and shaping the narrative around the conflict. The true story of the invasion was stifled, and I wondered whether we could have dispatched a swarm of flying video screens capable of arranging themselves into one giant aerial monitor in the middle of popular city squares across Russia, showing real footage of the war, not merely clips approved by the government. Or, even simpler: swarms of flying digital projectors could have broadcasted the footage on the sides of buildings and walls for all to see. If we had deployed enough, there would have been too many of them to shut down.

There may be variations of Tony Stark passing through my university or the labs of my colleagues around the world, and we need to do whatever we can to ensure these talented young individuals endeavor to have a positive impact on humanity.

The Tony Stark character is shaped by his experiences and steered toward having a positive impact on the world, but we cannot wait for all of our technologists to endure harrowing, life-­changing experiences. Nor can we expect everyone to use these intelligent machines for good once they are developed and moved out into circulation. Yet that doesn’t mean we should stop working on these technologies—­the potential benefits are too great. What we can do is think harder about the consequences and put in place the guardrails to ensure positive benefits. My contemporaries and I can’t necessarily control how these tools are used in the world, but we can do more to influence the people making them.

There may be variations of Tony Stark passing through my university or the labs of my colleagues around the world, and we need to do whatever we can to ensure these talented young individuals endeavor to have a positive impact on humanity. We absolutely must have diversity in our university labs and research centers, but we may be able to do more to shape the young people who study with us. For example, we could require study of the Manhattan Project and the moral and ethical quandaries associated with the phenomenal effort to build and use the atomic bomb. At this point, ethics courses are not a widespread requirement for an advanced degree in robotics or AI, but perhaps they should be. Or why not require graduates to swear to a robotics-­ and AI-­attuned variation on the Hippocratic oath?

The oath comes from an early Greek medical text, which may or may not have been written by the philosopher Hippocrates, and it has evolved over the centuries. Fundamentally, it represents a standard of medical ethics to which doctors are expected to adhere. The most famous of these is the promise to do no harm, or to avoid intentional wrongdoing. I also applaud the oath’s focus on committing to the community of doctors and the necessity of maintaining the sacred bond between teacher and pupils. The more we remain linked as a robotics community, the more we foster and maintain our relationships as our students move out into the world, the more we can do to steer the technology toward a positive future. Today the Hippocratic oath is not a universal requirement for certification as a doctor, and I do not see it functioning that way for roboticists, either. Nor am I the first roboticist or AI leader to suggest this possibility. But we should seriously consider making it standard practice.

In the aftermath of the development of the atomic bomb, when the potential of scientists to do harm was made suddenly and terribly evident, there was some discussion of a Hippocratic oath for scientific researchers. The idea has resurfaced from time to time and rarely gains traction. But science is fundamentally about the pursuit of knowledge; in that sense it is pure. In robotics and AI, we are building things that will have an impact on the world and its people and other forms of life. In this sense, our field is somewhat closer to medicine, as doctors are using their training to directly impact the lives of individuals. Asking technologists to formally recite a version of the Hippocratic oath could be a way to continue nudging our field in the right direction, and perhaps serve as a check on individuals who are later asked to develop robots or AI expressly for nefarious purposes.

Of course, the very idea of what is good or bad, in terms of how a robot is used, depends on where you sit. I am steadfastly opposed to giving armed or weaponized robots autonomy. We cannot and should not trust machine intelligences to make decisions about whether to inflict harm on a person or group of people on their own. Personally, I would prefer that robots never be used to do harm to anyone, but this is now unrealistic. Robots are being used as tools of war, and it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to shape their ethical use. So, I do not separate or divorce myself from reality and operate solely in some utopian universe of happy, helpful robots. In fact, I teach courses on artificial intelligence to national security officials and advise them on the strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities of the technology. I see this as a patriotic duty, and I’m honored to be helping our leaders understand the limitations, strengths, and possibilities of robots and other AI-­enhanced physical systems—­what they can and cannot do, what they should and should not do, and what I believe they must do.

Ultimately, no matter how much we teach and preach about the limitations of technology, the ethics of AI, or the potential dangers of developing such powerful tools, people will make their own choices, whether they are recently graduated students or senior national security leaders. What I hope and teach is that we should choose to do good. Despite the efforts of life extension companies, we all have a limited time on this planet, what the scientist Carl Sagan called our “pale blue dot,” and we should do whatever we can to make the most of that time and have a positive impact on our beautiful environment, and the many people and other species with which we share it. My decades-­long quest to build more intelligent and capable robots has only strengthened my appreciation for—­no, wonder at—­the marvelous creatures that crawl, walk, swim, run, slither, and soar across and around our planet, and the fantastic plants, too. We should not busy ourselves with the work of developing robots that can eliminate these cosmically rare creations. We should focus instead on building technologies to preserve them, and even help them thrive. That applies to all living entities, including the one species that is especially concerned about the rise of intelligent machines.

Excerpted from “The Heart and the Chip: Our Bright Future with Robots”. Copyright 2024 by Daniela Rus, Gregory Mone. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

HRI 2024: 11–15 March 2024, BOULDER, COLO.Eurobot Open 2024: 8–11 May 2024, LA ROCHE-SUR-YON, FRANCEICRA 2024: 13–17 May 2024, YOKOHAMA, JAPAN

Enjoy today’s videos!

How many quadrupeds can you control with one single locomotion policy? Apparently, the answer is “all of the quadrupeds.”

Look for this at ICRA 2024 in a couple of months!

[ EPFL ]

Thanks, Milad!

Very impressive performance from Figure 01, I think, although as is frequently the case, it’s hard to tell exactly how impressive without more information about exactly what’s going on here.

[ Figure ]

That awesome ANYmal Parkour research is now published, which means that there’s a new video, well worth watching all the way to the end.

[ Science ] via [ ETHZ RSL ]

Robotic vision can be pretty tricky when you’re cooking, because things can significantly change how they look over time, like with melting butter or an egg being fried. Some new research is tackling this, using a (now ancient?) PR2.

[ JSK Lab ]

Thanks, Kento!

Filmed in January of 2020, this video shows Atlas clearing debris and going through a doorway. Uses a combination of simple footstep planning, teleoperation, and autonomous behaviors through a single virtual reality operator interface. Robot built by Boston Dynamics for the DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2013.

[ IHMC ]

Sustainable fashion enabled by smart textiles shaped by a robot and a heat gun. Multiple styles, multiple sizes, all in one garment!

[ MIT ]

Video of Boston Dynamics’ Stretch from MODEX, with a little sneak peak at the end of what the robot’s next warehouse task might be.

[ Boston Dynamics ]

Pickle Robots autonomously unload trucks and import containers. The system is in production use at customer warehoues handling floor-loaded freight at human scale or better.

[ Pickle Robot ]

The ROBDEKON robotics competence center is dedicated to the development of robotic systems for hazardous environments that pose a potential risk to humans. As part of the consortium, the FZI Research Center for Information Technology developed robotic systems, technologies, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) methods that can be used to handle hazardous materials–for example, to sort potentially dangerous used batteries for recycling.

[ FZI ]

This research project with Ontario Power Generation involves adapting Boston Dynamics Spot’s localization system to longterm changes in the environment. During this testing, we mounted a GoPro camera on the back of Spot and took a video of each walk for a year from Spot’s point of view. We put the footage together as a moving time-lapse video where the day changes as Spot completes the Autowalk around the campus.

[ MARS Lab ]