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Boston Dynamics' SpotMini robot dog goes on sale in 2019

The mechanical star of many YouTube videos might show up in a building near you.

Now playing: Watch this: Boston Dynamics SpotMini robot dog struts its stuff.
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Boston Dynamics' SpotMini robot can walk sideways over obstacles. It'll go on sale next year.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

SpotMini, Boston Dynamics' agile four-legged robot, will go on sale next year for companies that want a mechanical quadruped to get to places a wheeled device can't reach.

Boston Dynamics has 10 SpotMini prototypes now and will work with manufacturing partners to build 100 this year, company co-founder and President Marc Raibert said at a TechCrunch robotics conference Friday. "That's a prelude to getting into a higher rate of production" in anticipation of sales next year, he said.

Who'll buy it? Probably not you, at least to start. 

Raibert didn't reveal price plans, but said the SpotMini robots could be useful for security patrols or for helping construction companies keep tabs on what's happening at building sites. SpotMini can be customized with attachments and extra software for particular jobs, he said.

Eventually, though, the company hopes to sell it for use in people's homes.

"Most places have something where wheels don't get you everywhere," Raibert said. "We think SpotMini can go to a much larger fraction of places." 

A human operator pilots a Boston Dynamics SpotMini quadrupedal robot.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Boston Dynamics is among the highest-profile robot companies out there. It made a bang with its gas-powered Big Dog quadruped, which could navigate challenging terrain while keeping its balance. Later, the company unveiled Atlas, a humanoid robot that can do flips, pick up boxes and can now run.

SpotMini, whose development began while Boston Dynamics was a Google subsidiary, is remarkable for being cute, as well as fascinating to watch. That's pretty valuable given how leery a lot of us are about our future robot overlords.

Boston Dynamics, now owned by Masayoshi Son's firm Softbank, combines near-term commercial priorities with "blue sky" projects that won't bear fruit for a long time. Atlas isn't close to being a product today, but technology like its hydraulics and power supply benefit today's work, Raibert said.

The front of this SpotMini model shows the complicated mechanisms for moving its legs and its extensible, grasping head.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Wheelchair replacement for taking humans off-road?

Atlas isn't the only long-term idea. One request Boston Dynamics gets is for a legged device that can carry wheelchair-bound people on more demanding terrain, such as a hike through the wilderness. "We're not actively working on that one yet," Raibert said.

Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert shows where SpotMini "butt-cam" is located. The robot quadruped descends stairs rump-first.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

On Thursday, Boston Dynamics showed it can teach its new dog new tricks, demonstrating its SpotMini autonomous navigation. The robot uses its four cameras to figure out where obstacles are and how to surmount them. That includes walking up steps without bumping into railings, Raibert said.

"This robot is using cameras facing forward, backward and on two sides to navigate through space," Raibert said.

In an onstage demo Friday, a human operator piloted the dog, giving commands about where the dog should go but not exactly how it should position its legs. The robot walked over some small obstacles -- moving sideways at one point. And it can hold its canine-like, grabber-equipped head stationary as the rest of its body moves around.

Autonomous SpotMini navigation

The autonomous navigation abilities require SpotMini to be driven manually across an area so that it can build its own map, Raibert said. Then it can figure out how to move on its own.

"The motion planning software is taking into account where the obstacles are, where the good places are, and coming up with motion control, all in real time," he said.

Boston Dynamics' SpotMini builds a 3D map of its surrounds and uses it to navigate on its own.

Boston Dynamics' SpotMini builds a 3D map of its surrounds and uses it to navigate on its own.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

In the long run, robots could be more important than the internet, Raibert said.

"The internet lets you touch all the information in the world, but robots let you touch everything in the world and manipulate it," he said. "That's a bigger idea."

First published May 11, 11:06 a.m. PT. 
Update, 11:46 a.m. PT: Adds further detail from the SpotMini demonstration.

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