Boston’s War Machines

Hot damn, Boston Dynamics is on a run. The Waltham-based robotics company announced yesterday that it just set the land speed world record for four-legged robots with its unsettlingly fleetfooted 18-mph sprinting machine that runs just like the family dog and has just about every tech site around salivating over it. This makes for yet another in the company’s growing list of viral videos, coming as it does on the heels of Little Dog, Big Dog, Alpha Dog, and Petman, and Big Dog, much of which has been happily funded over the past couple years through millions of DARPA dollars. By all accounts, they’re actually ahead of schedule right now, having previously shot to have a quadrupedal robot up and running at 20 mph by the end of this year. That’s one way of saying that if Boston Dynamics were a publicly traded company, I’d be wishing I owned some of their stock right about now.

This makes a curious contrast between that and iRobot — Boston Dynamics’ robotics neighbor to the north — because iRobot’s stocks are on the floor in a big way right now. They’ve recently let go of 8 percent of their workforce and set a grim outlook for the coming year, a reaction that comes in advance (iRobot bets) of big-time defense spending cuts that will hurt its military research arm. Protecting themselves further, they’ve also reoriented their company structure and leadership and are placing a significant emphasis on consumer/retail/medical-targeted robotics products — another contrast, because iRobot has historically been much more well-rounded than Boston Dynamics. Indeed, iRobot’s largest profile project is not its battle-tested tank-like bomb disposal bots, but the Ava robots that aimed to help doctors treat patients remotely.

It’d be easy to get sucked into the doom and gloom of iRobot’s projections. Certainly some investors have, but I actually just stumbled across this tidbit from a week or so ago that takes a very different outlook. The basic gist: “So, even though iRobot’s stock got hammered on fear of defense cuts, don’t ignore the robotics field. Because even though robots first came into use decades ago, they’re just now hitting their stride.”

They’re right. Robots are at an amazing point right now (for further convincing, check out this recent TED talk), and if I had to guess, about to become more integral to our lives than they already are, in the military, the hospital, and the home. iRobot is being very, very careful right now and hedging its bets with high-value consumer products, but I do not think it will be long before it’s back in the stratosphere with Boston Dynamics.