Spot, Boston Dynamics’ famous robot dog, dutifully follows my every command. The machine traipses forward, then automatically scrambles over a raised bed of rocks. I make it side-step. I command it up a flight of stairs, which it tackles with ease. It meets its match when I steer it at a medicine ball, though; it takes a tumble, and for a moment lies paralyzed on its back. But with a click of a button, Spot twists and rights itself, and recommences its ramblings.
Such unfailing obedience, yet I’m nowhere near Spot, which is roaming about the company’s testing grounds in Boston. I’m piloting the robot through my web browser from the comfort of my apartment in San Francisco, 3,000 miles away. With almost zero latency, I either use the robot’s front camera feed to click on bits of terrain—think of it like scooting around in Google’s Street View—or flicking my keyboard’s WASD keys in the most expensive videogame imaginable.
Just how expensive, Boston Dynamics is finally saying: $74,500. As of today, businesses, developers, and academics can buy Spot—max two per customer, well short of what it would take to assemble a pack of robot dogs. Until now, the company has only leased the robot to select early adopters. It worked with these lucky few to get the robot ready for life in the real world, and in large part to determine what this mesmerizingly dexterous machine might actually be good for.
This kind of extreme remote operation is a window into Spot’s budding career. Through the web interface, I can bring up feeds from the cameras dotted along the robot’s body. It uses these to path-find and detect obstacles like stairs; control algorithms then automatically move its legs so as to not plummet down them. A construction company, for instance, might program Spot to take a route around a work site, taking pictures of progress along the way. But at any time, a remote operator can take control of the robot—the latency is surprisingly minimal because the bandwidth between the operator and the machine is a mere half megabyte—and send it someplace too dangerous for humans.
“So we’ve seen that in manufacturing, mining, electric utilities, even to some extent more [hazardous] environments over the last several months as Covid has started impacting the ability to actually access a work site,” says Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics. Indeed, Spot (with a tablet mounted on its face) recently went to work in a Boston hospital, helping screen patients for the disease. This is the promise of Spot and any number of other increasingly sophisticated robots: We want them to do the dull, dirty, and dangerous work—collectively known as the “3 D’s” in robotics—that shouldn’t mean humans have to risk their lives.
To tackle a variety of jobs, Spot accepts a variety of attachments. Its onboard cameras can’t see particularly far, but you can strap a lidar unit onto its pack for longer-range perception. Or you might add a high-res 360-degree camera for inspection purposes. Boston Dynamics’ engineers are also working on a robotic arm for Spot, which you might have seen opening doors a few years back. The robot is meant to be a flexible platform: Boston Dynamics has spent many years refining the hardware and software that give the robot incredible mobility, but attachments will help qualify Spot for specific jobs. A software development kit allows operators to further customize how the robot behaves and senses its world, for instance incorporating computer vision models to detect certain landmarks around a job site.
Boston Dynamics’ early adopter program, which launched last year, was meant to determine what those jobs may be—so far the robot dog has worked in mines and construction sites, and patrolled as a security guard. “We came in with a number of fixed ideas of what environments Spot will be most beneficial in,” says Perry. “And we ended up screening out—at least in our initial searching for customers—things like manufacturing environments, where we thought, ‘Oh, a wheeled or tracked robot would be a better mobile robot for this space because it’s a flattened, consistent environment.’” That is, the nimble Spot was overqualified.
The company also had a potential client that wanted a particular space surveilled—a job that a security camera could easily do at a fraction of the price. So Spot didn’t get that job, either. This is the potential pitfall of such a sophisticated machine: Its hypnotic agility can distract from the reality that it is, at its core, a tool, and a very expensive one at that. Over the years, Boston Dynamics has put out many a video showing off their robots’ uncanny skills, like the humanoid Atlas doing a backflip and Spot fending off a hockey-stick-wielding human. But those are the very best behaviors—what you don’t see are the failed takes. Now the company has to actively manage the expectations of its customers, who may be counting on too much from these machines.
It’s also tempting to assume that because Spot will automatically route around people, as it does with other obstacles, that the robot will work well in close quarters with humans. But with its early adopter program, Boston Dynamics researchers found the robot to be better suited for exploring environments that are unkind to the human body—think mines and nuclear power plants. A human would sit in a room somewhere distant, setting waypoints for Spot to navigate autonomously, and remotely piloting the robot if it gets in a jam. “At this point, we’re really thinking that Spot is an industrial robot designed to work away from people,” says Perry.
To get one, you can order from Boston Dynamics’ website starting today, and expect it to arrive in six to eight weeks. (The company is currently only taking orders in the US.) The pandemic disrupted their supply chain for a bit, but Perry says they’ve designed the manufacturing process to scale up, should demand soar. “All the pieces are there to be able to get robots into the hands of customers as quickly as possible,” says Perry.
The $74,500 fee constitutes an outright purchase, by the way—not a lease—and academic and research institutions can get a discount if they contact the company. Included in the package are two batteries and a year warranty. That price point, Perry says, is intended to strike a balance between what robotics researchers could afford, and the value that corporate customers might derive from Spot—for example, perhaps a power plant could avoid shutting down (at a cost of perhaps $1 million a day) because the robot helped fix a problem, or a construction company could avoid reworking costs because Spot helped track progress on their job site.
But be warned: It’s not just the robot dog you’ll have to pay for. “You have, of course, all the costs of retraining employees, supporting employees because their work will have changed, using a tool that’s complicated,” says Julie Carpenter, a roboticist and research fellow at the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. This is, after all, a brand new kind of automation, a highly sophisticated machine meant to supplement the skills of human workers. “People who are the decision makers in industry may be perfect at their job but do not always have a grasp of robotics, the capabilities and limitations, and can buy into hype the same way the rest of us can,” she says.
And so Boston Dynamics’ robot puppy trots out of the kennel and into the workforce, ready to learn a new trick or two.
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