“When the dog looks at you, the dog is not thinking what kind of a person you are. The dog is not judging you.” – Eckhart Tolle

What’s so relatable with the above quote is that it applies to SPOT too. This is the Man’s best friend with robotic parts and uhm… without a head. Yes, it’s creepy isn’t it. When it extends its arm to give you a handshake, it looks more like a malnutritioned dinosaur. But jokes apart, this robot is a technological marvel that aims to revolutionize industries and even find a way into our homes.

In this article, you will know about the dog-like Robot SPOT, the ones who developed it, its features and characteristics, the various fields where SPOT is used, the role of SPOT in tackling the coronavirus situation and the future of this marvellous robot.

What is SPOT?

SPOT is an Agile mobile robot that happens to look like a dog(without a head). This robot was developed by the People at Boston Dynamics, who are considered to be one of the pioneers in robotics. The company describes SPOT as “A nimble robot that climbs stairs and traverses rough terrain with unprecedented ease, yet is small enough to use indoors.”

Do not get fooled by its dog-like appearance, it isn’t anything like a pet animal. Rather, SPOT is an expensive, industrial-grade machine that requires development and maintenance. This four-legged robot is superior than its wheeled counterparts in that it has greater mobility and balance.

SPOT is a semi autonomous robot. Most of its operations are remotely controlled by a human but the robotic dog is capable of doing certain basic tasks automatically like walking stairs, avoiding walls and dancing to Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk.

What does Boston Dynamics do?

Like SPOT, Boston Dynamics creates and develops other mobile robots like Handle, Pick and Atlas to name a few. The group is passionate about tackling various real life challenges by applying robotics. Boston Dynamics “creates innovative machines, combining advanced control systems with software and sophisticated mechanical designs to create high-performance robots equipped with perception, navigation, and intelligence”.

In a TEDx talk by Marc Reibert, founder of Boston Robotics, he claimed that Mobility, Dexterity and Perception will be the main goals of any robot that they’re building. Marc Reibert believes that there needs to be a holistic design between the software, hardware and the behaviour, in order to build a successful robot.

The company hires engineers and scientists who are extraordinary in their analytical thinking and engineering concepts and can get their hands dirty to implement new robots.

Features

The first thing that you’ll notice when you’re near SPOT is how small and sturdy it is. It is about three feet high and about 32kgs(70 pounds). It is resilient on slippery surfaces and better able to handle stairs than other robots. The robot has crash protection and reacts dynamically with the ability to get itself up after a fall.

Human Body parts are reconstructed with robotic pieces and concepts of electronics are used to make the bionic a part of the human body. Bionics depend upon a process called electromyography which is basically controlling an external part with the signals from your brain with the help of existing muscles.

The most notable features of the robot are:

  • Cameras at all sides (gives SPOT a 360-degree view).
  • Omnidirectional (Able to move in all sides)
  • Top speed of 3 miles per hour
  • Average runtime of 90 minutes
  • Can carry upto 14 kg
  • Programmable API (to customize SPOT)
  • 2 Payload Ports (also to customize SPOT)
  • Swappable battery
  • Rain and Dust protected

Along with these basic features, you customize Spot by adding specialized sensors, software and other payloads in order to meet the demands of your business or industry.

It adjusts how it moves to minimize slipping as much as possible and is able to understand the nature of the surface that it’s walking on and navigates on challenging terrain but this is something that SPOT needs to improve on. There are other features that are continuously added to SPOT to make it more complete. Watch this video to know more about what SPOT does.

Robotics

Operating and Controlling the Robot

You can control SPOT with the help of a video-game like controller(with XBOX keys). Boston Dynamics feels that gamifying the control of robots will increase the reach and adoption of the robots among the non-tech communities too. The company has built a high level API so that customers can create applications with Spot without having to deal with low-level implementation details.

If you want SPOT to move to a place, all you have to do is simply touch on the screen and tadaa, it goes there. It isn’t exactly like playing a video game where you control each and every move because the developers were more stressful on automation of the robot rather than remote control.

SPOT is super customizable and with the appropriate payloads and customization, you could perform tasks like checking for gas leaks and creating a 3D map of a whole building. The company customizes the robot when you quote for one.

Applications

Boston Dynamics has been leasing units of SPOT to clients all over the world for diverse applications. Boston Dynamics claims that some companies(the names are confidential) have started testing SPOT to monitor construction sites, provide remote inspection at gas, oil and power installations, and in public safety. They also have scope in mining of tunnels, healthcare, entertainment and for other research purposes.

Robotics

Tackling the Coronavirus using SPOT

It was a serene and a beautiful day at the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore on 8th May, 2020. There were senior citizens sitting on the benches of the park, people basking under the sun, human beings jogging around the park and trodding amidst them was this robotic dog.

I’m sure everyone’s reaction would be, “Wait what? A robotic dog in a park?”.

Yes, people spotted(pun intended) this bizarre and creepy robot dog going up and down the 3km stretch in the park. The dog went about the park with its usual creepiness, playing a recorded message(“Let's keep Singapore Healthy, please stand at least 1 metre apart”) to remind people to maintain social distancing.

The robot estimates the number of people in the park with its cameras, but don’t worry about your privacy, it cannot track individuals or record data about humans.

With the ability to be remotely controlled, it reduces the need for police or authorities to ensure social distancing. There were signs all over the park requesting people not to disturb the Dog with a mission. The Singaporean government is trialing the SPOT robot with a view to make it a regular feature of parks and use it full time to monitor the peak hours in the park. See it in action.

Robotics

How to buy one?

If you are interested in leasing the creepy looking headless robotic dog, you could do so by filling out this form. The representatives of Boston Dynamics will contact you soon. You could use it for the above stated purposes or if you’re filthy rich(it is supposed to cost as much as a car), SPOT may act as a good companion and can flex some dance moves too. But the sale of SPOT is limited to an “early adopters program” as of now and the company is only interested in leasing these robots to companies in particular domains.

What’s in store for us in the future?

It is really fun and satisfying to watch SPOT go about. It is very synchronized and automated that it is really like watching your pet dog walk. SPOT acts as a stable base where the partners can build upon it using APIs to customize the robot for their work. Once this gets into action on a large scale, we might see these dogs on a regular basis henceforth.

SPOT is very bad at socializing with people though. In the sense, it finds difficulty in navigating through big crowds and there is a lot of work and programming that still needs to be done before SPOT can be released on a commercial scale. Once the robot is produced commercially, it can be used for a variety of purposes including, door-2-door delivery, taking care of the aged and the disabled and even helping the army (no it’s not scary). Let us at least hope that the people at Boston Dynamics give SPOT a head so that it doesn’t seem very creepy as it is now.

Vignesh Hariharan

The author is a student of SSN College of Engineering pursuing his Bachelors in Computer Science and Engineering. He is a Product Management and Cloud Computing enthusiast. Passionate about Football and watching Manchester City play. Loves to read Agatha Christie and other thriller novels. He writes on Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Space Science for Rancho Labs.