In the lab and workshop, engineers and robotics fans can geek out about robots all day long. It’s a very long road from a ridiculously cool, glorified science experiment to robots that can be put to work in production environments. These robots often have to work under the toughest conditions imaginable: defusing bombs, roaming the halls of nuclear power plants or working high in the sky to keep our power lines in good condition.
As part of today’s TC Sessions: Robotics event, I spoke with Robert Playerthe CEO of Boston Dynamicsand Kiva Allgoodthe CEO of Sarcos technology and roboticsto find out how they are evolving and growing their organizations to help their robotics in the real world.
Sarcos Technology and Robotics has been in the news a lot as it has expanded its product range. The company has three flagship products. The first is an exoskeleton that works in tandem with a human to make it do things humans normally can’t do. Next up is the Guardian XT, a remote controlled, highly convenient product that works particularly well for tasks at height. There is also the Guardian Sa robot for remote inspection.
Boston Dynamics has three robots that it currently builds and sells – two of the three are for sale. Spot is the one you are probably most familiar with; it’s the one that looks like a dog, which you may have seen on the sure naira stage in the past. Stretch is a mobile pick-and-pack robot that the company is building especially for the logistics sector – the first use case will be the unloading of trucks and containers full of boxes. The third robot is a research platform the company calls Atlas, a humanoid robot you may have seen trying his limbs (and occasionally failing spectacularly) during parkour.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
TC: What does it take to ship robots to customers?
Robert Playter (Boston Dynamics): One of the biggest shifts is that we’ve moved away from a 100-person company, the R&D company that proved the technology. We are currently 500 people. We had to build out all this extra functionality – services, supply chain, manufacturing, and expand our finance teams. Actually building and delivering a product is so much more than making the first prototype work.
Kiva Allgood (Sarcos Robotics): It’s a different way of thinking. You have to shift the technical team. R&D engineers who like to prove themselves and keep repeating don’t like to put down their pencils. So as you expand the organization to support the market with sales and finance, you also need to make sure you have the right mindset on the technical side of the house. And that’s a big transition. It is very difficult. If you’ve spent 20 years building a robot, it’s your baby and you want to keep improving it. Not necessarily, you know, saying it’s as good as it gets. So I’d say this is probably one of the biggest mental changes we’ve had to deal with.
TC: Switching from internal to customer-operated – is that difficult?
Kiva Allgood (Sarcos Robotics): Obviously, you can’t send an engineer with every product, so you need to have a diagnostic setup and the tools that go with it. That should be part of the mindset of the engineer releasing the product. That’s very different from the R&D stage, where people go to fix the robot and say, “It’s fixed,” but they don’t document it. They didn’t say, “Here are the five diagnostic things you need to do.” Robots are complex things. We’re really trying to design for production and scalability, and that includes design for maintenance, which is different from showing that the technology can work.
Robert Playter (Boston Dynamics): The customer must be successful with the product. If you have engineers, you can make a robot do almost anything, but in order for the customers to do things, you have to make everything work together in such a way that it becomes very easy. The out-of-the-box experience just has to work. That means understanding the actual applications the robots are used for and building the connecting infrastructure for the robot to actually deliver value.
TC: What are the types of tasks that are too dangerous for humans?
Kiva Allgood (Sarcos Robotics): An example of those tasks is everything at height. For example, pruning trees. You need to clear around electrical lines as that is one of the main causes of fires. A human in a bucket truck with a power saw cutting near a power cord, it’s very, very dangerous, and that’s a place where robots can be helpful. Or anything that involves scaling tall structures, anything with a repetitive motion that has a strong impact on shoulders and arms. That’s true if you have a robot doing those tasks and a human who is now a robot operator. It means they are no longer a technician; they are a fleet manager of robots, but they don’t need to be in danger. Another use case for us is aviation. During a thunderstorm you cannot place a human on the asphalt, but you can use a robot.
Robert Playter (Boston Dynamics): Some of the best applications are those with a security issue. For example, measuring radiation in a nuclear power plant is a common application. Some utilities and power companies use Spot when a hazardous event occurs and they need to disconnect high voltage equipment. They can generate an arc flash and it kills hundreds of people every year. Ontario Power Generation just used Spot for that and proved they can do that power cut with our robot. We also have police and security clients using Spot to explore CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) environments. They also use it for environments where dangerous drugs may be present, such as fentanyl. I just saw a report from a client where they use Spot to scout a drug den and find out if there are drugs in a building.
TC: How have the companies developed?
Robert Playter (Boston Dynamics): It started with service. We were building Spots in the lab, but we had to maintain them, and that was a whole new feature. Marketing is another example – we’ve never really done a lot of outbound marketing. We’ve posted some videos on YouTube, but now we’re systematically trying to target the right customers. We set up our own manufacturing facility here in Waltham, so now we can produce thousands of robots a year in this facility. That’s a whole new skill.
Kiva Allgood (Sarcos Robotics): There has certainly been a transformation of the leadership team, and that comes with its own challenges. People who took on slightly different roles specialized more, whereas they used to wear five or six different hats. Today, supply chain and manufacturing are critical parts of the leadership team. As you mature a product, the questions you ask evolve. How do you hold the team accountable, what are the most important results? You have to take that into account. I have empathy for the people who have been traveling with us all along. Some of them can make that transition and some can’t. There are people who just love R&D, and that’s all they ever want to do, and you want to embrace that.
You can watch the full video of the Robotics session below!