This autumn, after years of dropping view-amassing videos of Spot the robot dog fending off stick-wielding humans and opening doors for its pals, Boston Dynamics finally announced that the machine was hitting the market—for a select few early adopters, at least. BD’s people would be the first to tell you that they don’t fully know what the hypnotically agile robot will be best at. Things like patrolling job sites, sure. But Spot is so different than robots that have come before it that company execs are in part relying on customers to demonstrate how the machine might actually be useful.
And now, after a few months on the job, Spot is beginning to show how it’ll fit in the workforce. BD’s researchers have kept close tabs on the 75 or so Spots now working at places like construction companies and mining outfits. (Oh, and one’s with MythBuster Adam Savage for the next year.) They’re seeing hints of a new kind of cooperation between humans and machines, and even machines and other machines. And starting today, you can even customize Spot to your liking—the software development kit is now publicly available on GitHub. Robot not included, though.
As an example of how Spot can help, says Michael Perry, VP of business development at BD, the mining industry now employs self-driving subterranean vehicles. But if something goes awry, like a sensor malfunctions or a truck gets hung up on a rock, the operation has to shut down so a human worker can safely troubleshoot the problem. But with Spot, early adopters found, the human operator can stay at a safe distance, seeing through Spot’s eyes. “It’s kind of an interesting cognitive leap to start thinking about robots mending and minding other robots,” says Perry. “It’s a little far-fetched and it’ll be interesting to see how successful these customers are with that application, but it was certainly something that I was really surprised by.” It’s the old robotics mantra dirty, dangerous, and dull in action: Advanced robots like Spot can tackle jobs humans can’t. (Or shouldn’t, really, unless you enjoy venturing into mines to get autonomous vehicles out of subterranean trouble.)
But there remains much that Spot can’t do. BD, for instance, hasn’t yet deployed the arm that allows the robot to open doors—that’ll come later this year—so Spot can’t fix a problem it might find with an autonomous mining truck. And the company has to confront the very magic that made it famous. A running criticism is that by viralizing slick videos of their robots pulling off amazing feats (a humanoid robot doing backflips, anyone?), they’re setting the public’s expectations too high. It takes a lot of work to get those tricks right, and what you’re not seeing are the many times the robots fail.
So BD’s researchers and execs have had to sit down with each prospective early adopter and talk through what their needs are, and what the robot can and can’t do for them—or whether they even need such an advanced platform in the first place. “We really try to work with customers and our own internal expectations to make sure that we’re not tackling a sensing task that, if you just installed a bunch of Nest cameras, you’d have the same result,” says Perry.
At the same time, BD is trying to make Spot a flexible platform, so early adopters can tailor the robot to fit their needs—think of it more like Android than iOS. That’s where the newly downloadable SDK comes in, allowing operators to program new behaviors. For example, if Spot is working a construction site, a project manager might want it to recognize and photograph certain objects. The SDK allows them to connect Spot’s cameras to computer vision models running either onboard the robot or in the cloud. Once they set Spot’s path by joysticking it around so it can remember the route, then they can let Spot autonomously roam the site, doing the work of a human who’d have to wander around doing the same.