Anyone that keeps up with the robot world can instantly recognize Boston Dynamics’ one of a kind Spot. The dog-like, four-legged robot has quickly risen to prominence thanks to its intelligent features and sort-of cute aesthetic. Of course, some would more quickly relate it to something out of a “Black Mirror” episode.
Although Spot has now been around for several years, the quadruped bot is finally on sale to the general public. It retails for $74,500 (about the price of a luxury Tesla Model S). Despite the hefty sum, Boston Dynamics assures its customers that they are getting the most advanced mobile robot in the world.
Bring Spot Home
Last year, Boston Dynamics started leasing Spot units to select businesses. This helped it continue to test the robot in the real-world. The decision to let firms purchase their own bots comes shortly after Spot received a major update.
The Boston Dynamics team recently completed Spot 2.0, a software update that allows the bot to move more autonomously and improves its navigation features. Notably, the team completed the update while working from home with their own Spot units.
Thanks to Spot’s enhanced mobility, the robot is a fit for just about any work environment. Boston Dynamics’ lead robotics engineer, Zack Jackowski, says, “We mostly sell the robot to industrial and commercial customers who have a sensor they want to take somewhere they don’t want a person to go.”
He adds, “Usually because it’s dangerous or because they need to do it so often that it would drive someone mad. Like carrying a camera around a factory 40 times a day and taking the same pictures each time.”
The four-legged robot can be customized with almost any sensor that exists today to perform a dizzying array of tasks.
Moving forward, Boston Dynamics plans to continue upgrading Spot as it receives feedback from customers. It is also working on a feature that will give prospective customers an up-close and personal experience with the four-legged bot.
A demo version of the remote teleoperation feature will allow potential customers to test drive Spot through a robot assault course in the Boston Dynamics headquarters. Since travel and face-to-face interaction are currently limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, this is an invaluable resource.
“Some of the customers we’re speaking to are in ‘shut up and take my money’ mode. But other say, ‘I’m interested in Spot, but I want to come to your lab and drive a robot or for you to come visit me,’” says Michael Perry, Boston Dynamics’ vice president of business development.
As for those who are concerned about Spot being used for evil, Boston Dynamics has a plan. The firm will enforce a code of use for its robot. It includes not being able to use weaponized attachments that can “harm or intimidate people.”
Unfortunately, there isn’t a real way to get around that. A person could easily violate the code after purchasing a unit.
In that case, Perry says, “If there’s a harmful use, then the license would be invalidated, and the customer wouldn’t be able to use the robot. But obviously, there’s not a lot that we can do ahead of time beyond validating that the purchase is valid, and that the person buying the robot is not on the Department of Commerce watch list or anything along those lines.”
Technically, Spot is no more dangerous than a wheeled delivery robot. People simply seem to fear it because of its unique movements.
Embracing a Role
Many people hold concerns that a quadruped like Spot could be used by law enforcement for jobs other than the bomb squad. While Boston Dynamics hasn’t ruled out selling its bot to security firms or law enforcement agencies, it doesn’t foresee a future where that becomes popular.
That’s mostly due to Spot’s size. “It is a 30-kilogram robot that can easily be knocked over,” Perry says. Relative to its cost, Spot just isn’t worth it for jobs that put it in danger of being incapacitated.
There is, however, undeniably a market for the robot.
Perry notes, “We get a lot of requests for stuff that is really, really exciting. But a lot of the most interesting stuff from a business perspective are things that people would find boring, like enabling the robot to read analog gauges in an industrial facility.”
Although that isn’t the most exciting use for a four-legged robot, it is certainly impactful. For many businesses, having a robot that can take care of mundane tasks efficiently and effectively is invaluable.
Moment of Truth
In the robot world, Spot is essentially a celebrity. Though there are bots with millions of sales, few are as well-known as this four-legged one. Despite that, it is still a limited product. At this point, Boston Dynamics has leased just 150 units to customers. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is on track to miss its production target of 1,000 units this year. Perry notes that the firm will hit its target by Q1 2021.
At least to start, sales will be limited to two Spot units at a time and larger orders will be discussed individually.
As it ramps up its plans to sell Spot commercially, Boston Dynamics is focusing on doing things differently. It’s clear that Spot both looks and feels like a commercial product. Selling the quadruped is a big test not only for the bot but for its maker. It will be very exciting to see what companies do with Spot in the next few years.