A couple years ago, the internet had a mild freakout when the robotics company Boston Dynamics showed off a dog-like robot opening the door for one of its pals. Twitter commentators called the demonstration “terrifying,” “the end of us all,” and a sign that “we’re all dead.”
But that little bit of robot collaboration was just the beginning for Spot, the robot Boston Dynamics has been leasing out for industrial use since last fall. Now that Spot is out in the real world, Boston Dynamics has received “more than a few” requests to have it team up with other robots, says Michael Perry, Boston Dynamics’s vice president of business development. The company is now allowing other businesses to purchase Spot outright, and has provided tools so they can integrate it with entire robot fleets.
“It’s not just Spot riding on a wheeled robot, but we’ve had some customers looking at Spot carrying a drone, and the drone flies off the back of the robot, does inspection of something that’s high up, lands on the back of the robot, and continues on its mission,” Perry says. “There are a lot of advantages and opportunities to explore the ways different types of automation can collaborate together.”
As Boston Dynamics tries to transition away from its roots in government-funded research, making Spot play nice with other robots can help it ingratiate itself with businesses, which are increasingly asking for ways to make robots work together.
Wheels and legs
One of Boston Dynamics’s first industrial customers is Ford, which has been testing Spot at both its Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford, MI, and the UAW-Ford Technical Training Center in Dearborn, MI. Equipped with a laser scanner and 360-degree video camera, Spot has been capturing 3D images of parts, tools, and room layouts. Ford then turns the output into computer-aided design files and virtual reality programs, which it uses to retool its assembly plants.
Spot doesn’t work alone, though. Ford also uses an autonomous wheeled robot to drive around its facilities and capture its own images, sort of like a Roomba with a tripod and cameras sticking out of the top. (Ford came up with its own names for the two robots: Fluffy for Boston Dynamics’s creation and Scouter for the robot on wheels.) Mark Goderis, a Ford digital engineering manager, says the pair can scan a three-million-square-foot facility in about a week, versus two weeks for the manual process of capturing images on a stationary tripod, while also reducing costs.
“The idea is . . . we’d have that in every one of our facilities to be able to update scans whenever our employees need it,” Goderis says. That way, they can have up-to-date views of how their facilities are laid out.
Unlike the wheeled robot, Spot isn’t autonomous in Ford’s implementation—someone has to control it remotely—but it can get into tighter spaces, walk up flights of stairs, and navigate tough terrain that the other robot can’t handle. Goderis says he’d like the pair of robots to have more autonomy and work as a team, especially as they expand to more facilities. In August, Ford is moving the robots out of its research and training facilities and into an actual transmission plant in Sterling Heights, MI.
“We’re working to get Scouter and Fluffy to work together, so that Fluffy will ride on top of Scouter, and go around and do the scans, and then when Scouter can’t get into a tight spot, we’ll release the hounds,” he says.
Boston Dynamics’s Michael Perry says this is not an uncommon request, and so the company has been working to accommodate what he calls “robot teaming.”
In May, the company announced a new API, so that its partners can teach Spot new tricks, such as autonomous navigation. Perry says customers can also program Spot to coordinate with other robots or integrate with robot fleet management systems.
“It turns out that customers like Ford have been deploying mobile robots in their facilities, but they’ve not been able to get the full coverage that they need, partly because of terrain challenges,” he says. “And that’s where this notion of pairing robots together is so powerful.”
Rise of the machines
The push for industrial use represents a pivot of sorts for Boston Dynamics, which is best-known for making DARPA-funded robots with potential military applications, such as BigDog and Atlas. (The company was acquired by Google in 2013, then sold to the Japanese holding company Softbank four years later.) Although Boston Dynamics is still developing Atlas as a way to research robotic movements, it’s no longer doing research or development for DARPA, and it’s pushing Spot as its first truly commercial product.
There’s a sense that the company is trying to make its robots seem a little less menacing in the process. Earlier this month, Spot served as a cheerleader for a baseball team, and last week served as a backup dancer for the Japanese composer and programmer Daito Manabe and the performing arts group Rhizomatiks on NHK Songs, a music show in Japan. Spot’s dance moves aren’t new, but it’s increasingly performing them outside of the lab.
And in case the idea of a robotic dog teaming up with other bots still makes you nervous, Boston Dynamics insists outright that Spot won’t become a killer pack animal. While the company does not rule out police or military applications such as bomb detection or hazmat response, its terms of service forbid using the robot for harm, threats, or intimidation, and it’s not allowed to even hold a weapon.
“In order for the robot to beneficial long-term, it has to be able to be trusted,” Perry says.
This story has been updated to clarify that Spot can be programmed to work autonomously, though it is not autonomous in Ford’s implementation.