It is said that Benjamin Franklin, while watching the first manned flight of a hot air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris in 1783, responded when questioned as to the practical value of such a thing, “Of what practical use is a new-born baby?” Dr. Franklin certainly had a knack for getting to the heart of an issue.
Much the same can be said for Spot, the extremely videogenic dog-like robot that Boston Dynamics has been teasing for years. It appears that the wait for a production version of the robot is at least partially over, and that Spot (once known as Spot Mini) will soon be available for purchase by “select partners” who “have a compelling use case or a development team that [Boston Dynamics] believe can do something really interesting with the robot,” according to VP of business development Michael Perry.
The qualification of potential purchasers will certainly limit the pool of early adopters, as will the price tag, which is said to be as much as a new car – and a nice one. So it’s not likely that one will show up in a YouTube teardown video soon, so until the day that Dave Jones manages to find one in his magic Australian dumpster, we’ll have to entertain ourselves by trying to answer a simple question: Of what practical use is a robotic dog?
How Much is That Doggy on the Jobsite?
To be clear, we’re only interested in the current crop of industrial- and military-grade robotic canines. All of the robotic pets like Sony’s AIBO are interesting toys, but they aren’t intended to do the work that Spot and other robo-dogs are intended to do. Indeed, Boston Dynamics’ launch video for Spot seems to be all about the robot being industry-ready, prancing as it does through construction site vignettes with sparks a-flying and rain a-falling.
Boston Dynamics’ messaging is clear: they intend Spot to be a worksite assistant, at least at first. Its 14-kg payload capacity is respectable, but don’t expect it to be carrying around cinder blocks like the video shows. Instead, that payload will largely be made up of sensors and actuators that customers will need to haul into some sort of hazardous environment. If it’s wet, dusty, confined, hot, toxic, or any combination of the above, it looks like the company would like you to send Spot in to do the job. Applications suggested by Boston Dynamics include search and rescue for first responders, bomb disposal, confined-space entry with sensors, security, remote data collection, and even hazmat remediation.
Right now, Spot seems to be a solution in search of a problem. I think that’s actually OK, and Boston Dynamics’ approach of partnering with customers to develop the solutions to their problems is probably the right way to go. What they’ve built here is a marvelously flexible platform, and by concentrating on developing the control systems and abstracting away the complexity of the kinematics to the point where the robot can be controlled intuitively with a game console-style remote or through a high-level API, they’ve created a tool that will be able to address needs that no robotic engineer could possibly dream up.
Not the Only Dog in Town
As iconic as Boston Dynamics’ robot dogs have become, they’re hardly the only canine robots on the market. Either there’s something special about the canine layout that has lead multiple companies to pursue it for their robot platforms, or it’s a simple case of getting on the hype train started by Boston Dynamics. Either way, robot dogs seem to present a solid business opportunity, with the likes of ANYbotics, Unitree, and Ghost Robotics are all working on four legged robots. All of these companies and more are pouring big R&D bucks into robot dogs, so there has to be some mission for them. But that still begs the question: what will these things be good for?
A partial answer to that is obvious from looking at the LLAMA, or Legged Locomotion and Movement Adaptation, a dog-like robot being developed by the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory as a sort of valet for soldiers in the field. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the current crop of robo-canines, the all-electric LLAMA is designed to work alongside soldiers during field operations, carrying supplies, ammunition, or weapons that would normally be split up among squad members. Reducing the physical burden will either let soldiers operate longer in the field, or more likely, allow the entire squad to carry much more gear and provide a bigger punch with the same number of soldiers.
So what’s your take on Spot and its ilk? Are we likely to see robotic dogs walking around construction sites someday soon, taking measurements or bringing materials to human workers? Will fire and rescue squads someday have Spot-like robots at the ready to perform primary searches while firefighters gear up? Will there be robotic K9 police units someday, where a sensor-laden Spot will crawl under and around cars and into buildings in search of contraband or to deploy less-than-lethal weapons? Or will the military latch onto Spot and its robo-canine cousins as a force multiplier, doing the heavy work as embedded members of teams? What problems does the dog-like form factor solve better than other designs? And most importantly, for which use cases do robot dogs have the advantage over real dogs? Sound off in the comments below.
Featured images: Boston Dynamics, IEEE Spectrum (Bob O’Connor)