Boston Dynamics is a leading robotics company that has developed a wide range of legged robots for various applications, from industrial automation to military reconnaissance. One of the key innovations that differentiate Boston Dynamics from other robotics companies is the Ackerman steering system, which enables their robots to turn smoothly and maneuver in tight spaces.
In this article, we interview Aaron Saunders, Vice President of Boston Dynamics and a key contributor to the development of the Ackerman steering system. We ask him about the origins of the system, its technical details, and its potential applications in the future of robotics.
Q: Can you explain what the Ackerman steering system is and how it works in Boston Dynamics’ robots?
Aaron Saunders: Sure. The Ackerman steering system is a type of steering mechanism that allows a vehicle to turn smoothly by pivoting around its midpoint. It consists of two wheels, one on each side of the vehicle, that are connected by a steering linkage. When the vehicle turns, the wheels on the inside of the turn turn sharper than the wheels on the outside, which enables the vehicle to pivot around its midpoint without skidding or drifting.
In our robots, we use the Ackerman steering system to enable them to turn smoothly and maneuver in tight spaces. We also use it to control their posture and balance, since the steering affects the distribution of weight and torque in the robot’s legs.
Q: How did Boston Dynamics come up with the idea of using the Ackerman steering system in robots?
Aaron Saunders: The Ackerman steering system has been used in vehicles like cars and trucks for over a century, so it’s a well-established technology. However, it hadn’t been applied to legged robots before, because the dynamics of legged locomotion are much more complex than those of wheeled vehicles.
We started experimenting with the Ackerman steering system in our early prototypes of legged robots, and we found that it worked surprisingly well. It gave us a lot of control over the robot’s movement and stability, and it also allowed us to reduce the number of motors and joints needed for steering.
Q: What are some of the challenges and trade-offs involved in using the Ackerman steering system in robots?
Aaron Saunders: One of the main challenges is ensuring that the steering mechanism is robust and reliable, since it has to withstand the forces and vibrations of locomotion. We also have to balance the trade-offs between agility and stability, since a robot that turns too sharply may lose its balance or slip on uneven terrain.
Another trade-off is between speed and precision. The Ackerman steering system is not as fast as some other steering mechanisms, like skid steering or differential steering, but it offers more precise control over the robot’s trajectory and orientation. We have to choose the right balance of speed and precision depending on the specific task and environment.
Q: What are some of the most promising applications of the Ackerman steering system in robotics?
Aaron Saunders: The Ackerman steering system has a wide range of potential applications, from warehouse logistics to search and rescue missions. It’s particularly useful in environments where space is limited and maneuverability is crucial, like urban areas or disaster zones.
One of our most successful robots that uses the Ackerman steering system is Spot, which can navigate complex terrain and perform tasks like inspection, surveillance, and remote sensing. We’re also exploring applications in agriculture, construction, and entertainment, where robots can provide new forms of interaction and entertainment.
Q: What are some of the technical and ethical challenges facing the future of robotics, and how is Boston Dynamics addressing them?
Aaron Saunders: Robotics is a rapidly evolving field with many technical and ethical challenges. Some of the technical challenges include improving the reliability and safety