Boldly going where no robot has gone before

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.”