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Running & Jumping Robots

Wheeled and tracked machines are very lim­ited in the places they can go and can be halted by haz­ardous ter­rain such as moun­tains or snow. Marc Raibert, E’73, has been working for more than 20 years to change that by giving robots some all-​​access appendages: legs.

There is the hope that by building vehi­cles with legs, we could achieve a higher level of mobility than existing vehi­cles have,” Raibert said during his keynote address on Tuesday after­noon at the latest install­ment of Northeastern’s Pro­files in Inno­va­tion Pres­i­den­tial Speakers Series.

Raibert cre­ates inno­v­a­tive and func­tional bio-​​inspired robots at Boston Dynamics, the Waltham, Massachusetts-​​based com­pany he founded in 1992. He and his fellow engi­neers look to the mobility, agility, and speed of ani­mals for inspiration—and they are con­stantly pushing the limits.

We start by thinking what are some things that ani­mals can do and then we see if we can build a machine that does the same thing,” Raibert said. “These aren’t copies of ani­mals. Ani­mals are much more com­plex. We are really at the very prim­i­tive stages of emu­lating what they can do.”

Raibert showed video clips of some of the robots Boston Dynamic has devel­oped to an audi­ence of more than 200 atten­dees in the Curry Stu­dent Center Ball­room, as well as many others watching online. The videos not only showed the robots’ abil­i­ties to walk, gallop, and jump, but also how they can regain bal­ance when they are pushed off course.

This was the second Pro­files in Inno­va­tion Pres­i­den­tial Speakers Series event of the fall semester. North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun hosts the series, which is designed to bring the world’s most cre­ative minds to campus for con­ver­sa­tions on inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship. Pre­vious speakers include Nobel lau­reate Sir Harold Kroto, global busi­ness strate­gist Vijay Govin­darajan, IBM Watson cre­ator David Fer­rucci, and pio­neering cancer researcher Ross Cagan.

Raibert now serves as pres­i­dent and project man­ager of Boston Dynamics, which was acquired by Google last year. Some of the company’s inno­v­a­tive robots include BigDog, a rough-​​terrain quadrupedal robot that can run, walk, climb, and carry big loads. Before starting the com­pany, Raibert was a pro­fessor at MIT from 1986 to 1995, and Carnegie Mellon Uni­ver­sity from 1980 to 1986. He earned his doc­torate from MIT in 1977.

During the Q-​​and-​​A fol­lowing Raibert’s pre­sen­ta­tion, Aoun asked him about his expe­ri­ences as an under­grad­uate stu­dent at North­eastern and how co-​​op played a role in his education.

I think being a classroom-​​only expe­ri­ence wouldn’t have been the right thing for me,” said Raibert, who worked on co-​​op at IBM and in Northeastern’s Depart­ment of Psy­chology. “I’m a hands-​​on guy, and co-​​op gave me the oppor­tu­nity to mix that with my class­room work.”

One audi­ence member asked Raibert about the chal­lenges he and his col­leagues face while working with robots. In response, Raibert said tech­no­log­i­cally incor­po­rating power and per­cep­tion into the robots is some­thing they con­tinue to work on.

All of your abil­i­ties to look around this room and instan­ta­neously under­stand what is hap­pening and how you are moving in the spec­trum is phe­nom­enal,” Raibert said. “The kind of sit­u­a­tions you and I can handle are very com­plex, so the bar is set very high, and we are con­sis­tently working on that problem.”

But when it comes to building robots, Raibert said the pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less. “It’s so much about get­ting out­side of the box rather than building the next iter­a­tion of some­thing like a phone,” he noted. “You can create any kind of thing to attack any kind of problem.”