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ProBeat: Robots need to solve mobility before we find their killer app

This week we published our interview with Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter. We discussed his first year as CEO; the company’s profitability target after three decades (Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992); Spot, Pick, Handle, and Atlas; and the company’s broader roadmap, including which robots are next.

The interview comes on the heels of Boston Dynamics opening sales for its quadruped robot Spot in the U.S. for $74,500. Last week, the company expanded Spot sales to Canada, the EU, and the U.K. at the same price point. Playter shared early sales numbers with us and promised Spot would get a robot arm next year. After we had finished talking about the company’s plans for logistics robots, the conversation shifted to what it always does in 2020 and the most important feature of Boston Dynamics’ robots. An edited transcript of the tail end of our conversation is below.

VentureBeat: How has the pandemic impacted day to day operations?

Playter: I think we adapted more quickly than I ever would have expected. And more positively. There’s no way we are at 100% productivity because by their nature these machines, you sometimes you have to be close to them. But the neat thing about Spot is we already had the manufacturing lined up and running when the pandemic really hit and we sent everybody home to work. And a lot of the engineers got to go home with a robot and basically continue their work, at home. So that was really remarkable. Now we can’t do that with some of our logistics robots. And so, some of that development definitely slowed down. We did more work in simulation. Once we started doing limited and controlled access back to our facilities, we put the people back in the buildings who really had to be with the robots to do experiments.

But overall, I’ve been really pleased at just how productive people can be working remotely. Now I think we’re losing something in the long run and I’m anxious for us to be able to start to spend some time together again in a controlled fashion. And it’s also just being around robots is inherently kind of exciting and motivating. You need to be around them I think to kind of keep the energy level high. But really it’s gone surprisingly well, I would say.

VentureBeat: Has the pandemic impacted your thinking about where the company should focus, the roadmap, and broader mission?

Playter: It hasn’t really changed what we were thinking about doing in terms of developing and launching these products. What I think it might have done is change the sense of urgency that the market might feel and about exploring these things. March, April, sales kept going but they weren’t growing. It was sort of slow and I think that’s because all of our customers were at home too. Everybody was adapting to what the heck is going on.

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Now we did adapt quickly and do some kinds of rapid development. The whole idea of Dr. Spot, our telemedicine robot. That was really born out of us trying to think ‘well what is it that we can do that addresses this pandemic directly? Jeez this seems like a case where robots ought to be relevant. If suddenly being with other people is dangerous, is there an application that’s useful?’ We explored things like remote learning. Being able to experiment with or program a robot remotely, maybe that’s interesting. We decided not to pursue that.

But we had several inbound inquiries about using a robot to essentially do intake monitoring for patients. Allowing the medical personnel to stay remote from the patient, to not have to change out their protective equipment, which of course was in short supply. The patients felt safer, potentially, by not being exposed to somebody who was just talking to another potentially sick patient. And if you could do this remote vital sign sensing, which by the way was a hard problem, nobody had really pulled all these pieces together for the remote vital sign measurement. So we did a rapid development, teaming with MIT and Brigham and Women’s University. And we we’re able to get something going pretty quickly, mostly because Spot is a platform and it’s been configured from the beginning to handle new sensors, new payloads, and we were able to sort of create some working prototypes, which had been tested and we actually have more than one customer for.

But in the end, it’s not going to be a giant market. I don’t think that’s the killer app for robots. But we definitely did some rapid exploration. There’s other kinds of exploration, like disinfecting robots. We’ve done a little bit of work there. But I think in the end it’s not going to be sort of one of those direct applications that sort of help Spot take off. It’s going to be the things we were imagining originally: managing a complex industrial site, a utility, an oil and gas site, a construction site, a manufacturing site. Those are the things that we thought originally were going to be important. Those are the things where I’d say the majority of our customers are pulling from. But I think there might be a little bit greater sense of urgency because suddenly those are essential services. Keeping the electricity on. Keeping the manufacturing lines running. Keeping the warehouses running. And doing that without over exposing people to each other — suddenly that sort of created a little extra sense of urgency for maybe exploring the role of robotics, I think.

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VentureBeat: Did anything surprise you during the pandemic, other than hospitals apparently asking for Spots?

Playter: I mean that that was a little surprising to us. I hadn’t contemplated those applications before. I think when we went into our early adopter program we expected construction sites and maybe oil and gas sites to be interesting targets. Some of the lessons that came out of that though were that just managing nuclear power plants, electric utilities — those were not something we had anticipated. But in some ways, they might be the best opportunities for launching a comprehensive solution based on Spot. So basically the early adopter program taught us to go focus a little bit more narrowly on some of those utilities I think that we expected going in.

VentureBeat: Is there anything that we missed in our discussion or that you feel the press is missing in general?

Playter: We’ve always thought that mobility was a key functionality that hasn’t really been available in a robot yet. There’s been lots of wheeled robots. And they stay at a certain limited kind of mobility, but they couldn’t really get around. And so, I guess I think there’s sort of a bigger idea, which is that true mobility in a robot is I think a more transformational capability than I think people appreciate. I sort of suggested earlier that a mobile picking robot is more valuable than one that’s bolted to the floor. A mobile robot like Spot takes an asset like a sensor or an arm, or maybe even a remote person who’s located someplace else but can dial in through a camera and see what the robot is seeing. That mobility really amplifies the value of whatever the robot is carrying around. If it’s an arm, it’s more valuable because it can be distributed, if it’s a sensor, or if it’s a person who’s located around the world. In some ways I feel like these robots are kind of a superpower that lets a person come in and be anywhere that they need to be. And it might be in a dangerous place or just a place that’s difficult to get to. Maybe it would take three days to get there. But you could have a robot that’s there instantaneously. I think mobility is an amplifier of value and of people and assets that the robot carries. I guess I just think that’s going to be true across a whole range of industries.

VentureBeat: My read on it is the industry focused on “static” robots because mobile was just not feasible for so long. And you could achieve quite a fair bit if you have a robotic arm in a factory, for example. Once mobility started to be possible, it was still very difficult to achieve and certainly in an affordable way. It seems like it’s starting to happen, now it’s just a question of figuring out how do you apply it effectively. It opens up so many doors, but which door do you go through or which door do you invest in? You have a mobile robot. OK, but what’s the thing that it will do most effectively? And how do you then develop the software and the tools and the process for it to do that thing that you’ve prioritized on your list.

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Playter: I think you’re exactly right. I guess the trick that we have to navigate is finding the application that’s valuable enough that sort of lets this product grow, but the whole concept of having a platform, which is really where Spot started was that we want to be able to pivot at a later time to some other application if it arises. In fact, we have this conversation all the time inside the company. Do we prioritize the platform and let a thousand seeds grow in terms of getting robots in the innovator class hands and see what they do with it or do we focus on an industry where we think we can get enough value and frankly we need to find a way to straddle and do both. To have a successful product I think we need to scale to thousands of units and we’re going to do that by focusing on more narrowly on a set of industries. But we also think there’s things we haven’t thought of yet. And that others are going to think of. And we want to have a platform that sort of makes those things available to them.

VentureBeat: Yeah, it’s definitely something you have to balance. If I had to prioritize, I guess I would try to get as many units out as possible because people can always hack it. But yeah, of course, you got to make sure that if someone does try to put something on it, or makes a different payload, you have to make sure that’s even achievable. You have to make it modular from the get go. Otherwise, you’re very limited in what it can do and what people can try to do with it.

Playter: Exactly, yeah.

VentureBeat: Thank you for taking the time.

Playter: It was nice to talking to you. Thanks for your interest.

ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.

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