Boston Dynamics’ lifelike robots have been delighting and terrifying the internet in equal measure for years, but the company has a much bigger milestone ahead: its first ever commercial product — a quadrupedal robot named Spot — is nearly ready to go on sale.
Spot is currently being tested in a number of “proof-of-concept” environments, Boston Dynamics’ CEO Marc Raibert told The Verge, including package delivery and surveying work. And although there’s no firm launch date for the commercial version of Spot, it should be available within months, said Raibert, and certainly before the end of the year.
“We’ve been testing them relentlessly.”
“We’re just doing some final tweaks to the design,” said the CEO. “We’ve been testing them relentlessly.”
Raibert was showing off the robots at Amazon’s Re:MARS conference in Las Vegas, an event dedicated to advanced robotics, machine learning, and space exploration. On the first evening of the conference, a pair of Spot robots mingled with the crowds, overseen by two Boston Dynamics employees controlling the machines using modified gaming tablets.
Boston Dynamics’ viral videos often present its robots as polished and completely self-controlled agents, but it’s well known that the machines generally require human handlers. They are capable of navigating environments autonomously, but only when their surroundings have been mapped in advance. They can withstand kicks and shoves and keep their balance on tricky terrain, but they don’t decide for themselves where to walk.
And, like any new technology, they sometimes malfunction. During a live demo, one of the Spot robots collapsed without explanation, folding up its legs and nose-diving to the floor before a replacement trotted onstage.
But as the robots’ handlers demonstrated, they are eminently simple to control — so simple even I could do it. Using a D-pad, you can steer the robot as you would any RC car or mechanical toy. A quick tap on the video feed streamed live from the robot’s front-facing camera lets you select a destination for it to walk to, and another tap lets you assume control of a robot arm mounted on top of the chassis. It all feels very intuitive.
The robot arm is a prime example of Boston Dynamics’ ambitious plans for Spot. Rather than selling the robot as a single-use tool, it’s positioning it as a “mobility platform” that can be customized by users to complete a range of tasks.
A Spot robot mounted with 3D cameras can map environments like construction sites, identifying hazards and work progress. When equipped with a robot arm, it has even greater flexibility, able to open doors and manipulate objects.
At Re:MARS, a Spot with a robot arm used it to pick up items, including a cuddly toy that was then offered to a flesh-and-blood police dog. The dog was unimpressed with the robot, but happy, at least, to receive the toy.
Raibert says it’s this “athletic intelligence” that Boston Dynamics will be selling through its robots. Think of it like Amazon’s AWS business, but instead of offering computing power on tap, its robotic mobility.
The vast majority of bots in use in warehouses and factories today are only able to perform rote tasks, planned in advance down to the millimeter. But if robots are going to work alongside humans in more dynamic environments, they need to be able to react to hazards and changing conditions. These are eminently humans skills: tasks we complete without thinking — like catching a ball — but that stump all but the most advanced bots.
Onstage, Raibert demonstrated these skills by showing a video of Spot robot being frustrated in its attempts to open a door. The robot grapples at the door handle only to be shoved away by an engineer with a hockey stick. “We think this is one of the most important things we do,” said Raibert. “The [robots] can tolerate deviance around expected behavior.”
It’s not yet clear if there’s a market for robots like Spot
But although Boston Dynamics has a clear vision for its robots, it has yet to prove it can turn that vision into a viable business. Will companies buy Spot robots for surveillance and surveying when humans will be invariably cheaper? And will Boston Dynamics be able to compete with rivals that have sprung up in recent years with their own legged robots?
Since the company first began developing legged robots for the US military more than a decade ago, startups including the Swiss ANYbotics and Chinese Unitree have developed quadrupedal machines that look just as agile as Spot.
Raibert told The Verge the company’s current challenge was simply scaling up production. Currently, it has just 50 beta Spot units in its stables. “We’re manufacturing them at a reasonably high rate for an early product,” said Raibert. “We’re aiming for 1,000 a year.”
The robotics CEO wouldn’t divulge a price for Spot either, saying only that the commercial version will be “much less expensive than prototypes [and] we think they’ll be less expensive than other peoples’ quadrupeds.”
He did, however, reveal that the company had already found some paying customers, including construction companies in Japan who are testing Spot as a way to oversee the progress of work on sites. “There’s a remarkable number of construction companies we’re talking to,” said Raibert. “But we have some other applications that are very promising — [including] in hostile environments where the cost of having people there is high.”
These are the sorts of tasks that robots have historically excelled at: the dull, the dirty, or the dangerous. Toiling away in factories or unsafe environments like disaster zones and nuclear plants. Boston Dynamics evidently hopes its machines can continue this tradition. It’s just a matter of teaching a new robot dog a couple of old tricks.