In the race for Google’s strangest project, there are lots of contenders. Life-extension projects. Giant helium balloons that relay internet connections. A new version of Google Glass. But among them, dog-like robots that deliver parcels may be one of the most eye-popping.
Attendees at last month’s NIPS, a machine learning conference in Spain, got a surprise peek at the dogbot when Marc Raibert, CEO of Google-owned Boston Dynamics, unveiled his company’s latest projects. Among them is SpotMini, a four-legged robot that resembles a small dog and can perform tasks like opening heavy doors and climbing stairs to deliver packages to the front door of a home.
In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Raibert said that “Many people are talking about drone delivery. So why not just plain legged robots?”
The 55-pound robot, which debuted in June, has a variety of gaits including a very horse-like trotting gait, and can move sideways as well. In an onstage demo, the robot delivered a soda can into Raibert’s hands using an extendable arm and showed a variety of speeds and functions. The robot is an updated and miniaturized version of Boston Dynamics’ legendary military-purpose BigDog, a six-year-old DARPA-funded project that was reportedly canceled by the Pentagon over concerns about the robot’s noise.
While Boston Dynamics hopes to add autonomous functionality to SpotMini in the future, the robot was controlled by a remote operator at the demo. Once coupled with machine learning techniques and collective decision-making with other robots, SpotMini could get continuously better at its various feats.
The NIPS appearance was part of a mini-tour of sorts for Boston Dynamics that also included TechCrunch’s Disrupt London conference earlier this month. At that conference, Raibert also discussed delivery courier use cases for the SpotMini–as well as using it as an in-home aide for the elderly.
Several companies beyond Boston Dynamics and Google are also playing with the idea of using ground-based robots for delivery services. In August of 2016, Uber acquired Otto, a company that is working on autonomous trucks for shipping. Starship Technologies, a British-Estonian firm whose four-wheeled robot can ferry 20 pounds up to two miles, received approval from Washington, D.C.’s city government to begin testing robot delivery.
Robots are also used, in some circumstances, to ferry objects back and forth in closed environments such as warehouses, power plants, and building sites. Amazon’s army of 30,000 warehouse robots—the result of its acquisition of robotics maker Kiva for $775 million in 2012—has reportedly increased the efficiency of its warehouse operations and sliced the company’s operating costs by 20%—or nearly $22 million—per warehouse.
Amazon has also been at the forefront of efforts to deliver packages by aerial drone. Last week, CEO Jeff Bezos reported on Twitter, the company completed its first trial delivery in Cambridge, England: 13 minutes of flight without a human pilot involved. Still, given the regulatory challenges and safety concerns that come with flying drones ground-based drone delivery could start to look more appealing.
There’s just one other big challenge: Getting to the point where robot delivery couriers make economic sense. Although they look amazing in demonstrations–and give companies a chance to test out all sorts of new technologies–robots are both more expensive and time consuming than the use of human couriers for delivery in almost all circumstances. Still, they give an idea of where the technology is going.
Google/Alphabet acquired Boston Dynamics in late 2013 for $500 million, but the company has been a bit of an odd fit for the search giant. Amid eye-popping initiatives such as a 350-pound humanoid robot called Atlas, and a tiny robot called the Minitaur—developed with assistance from DARPA—Alphabet has expressed interested in selling Boston Dynamics, but has been unable to find a buyer. The company remains separate from X (Formerly Google X), which has robotics projects of its own. It’s still not clear how these robots will be used in everyday life, but the SpotMini prototype points toward at least one useful trick.
Updated Dec. 17 to include SpotMini gif and reference to the Big Dog project.