Boston Dynamics’ SPOT is a window into our robotic future

Hyundai’s controlling stake in robotic pioneers Boston Dynamics is about so much more than a cute dog-like robot and its ability to charm the public.

I’m as concerned about robots taking over the world as anyone, so you can imagine my trepidation when Drive was asked to head over to Hyundai Australia HQ to take a firsthand look at what Boston Dynamics had created with Spot – the now widely known robotic dog.

And while those of us with the fear of ultimate artificial intelligence takeover might find Spot a little disarming, the good news is that the lessons learned from this incredible execution of technology are less about a Terminator-like march of the machines and more about the ‘future of mobility’ as vehicle manufacturers like to call it.

Keep in mind also, that nearly everything Spot does has to be controlled by humans. And, when Spot fails, as can occasionally happen, humans have to troubleshoot the issues and find a solution. We’re not redundant after all.

First things first, Spot is a staggeringly complex, and cleverly engineered robot. The packaging, the light weight, the integration of movement with cameras and the way in which Spot can learn terrain and move around obstacles was the stuff of science fiction movies not so long ago. Now, you can watch Spot strut its stuff for real, struggling to grasp the capability with which it operates.

Spot is controlled with a remote that looks something like a high-end gaming console. Fearful of damaging a $100,000 device, I preferred to watch the experts manipulate Spot to showcase some of what it can do.

The basic specifications are impressive – with the bigger battery, Spot weighs 32.7kg, and can carry up to 14kg of payload. Its default walking height is 610mm but it can creep as low as 520mm. Maximum speed is 5.6km/h.

Capable of operating in temperatures between -20 and +45 degrees, Spot can negotiate slopes of plus or minus 30 degrees, climb stairs and either maintain or regain its balance with ease. In effect, Spot moves with a fluidity and precision that makes most of us look positively unbalanced.

With a full charge, typical runtime is 90 minutes and five cameras not only help Spot negotiate its own movement, but also what the controller can see through the remote. Unlike you or me, Spot has a 360-degree field of view. With the forward-facing camera chosen on the remote display, simply touch a point on the screen and Spot will make its way there as easily as possible.

The most obvious jobs Spot would currently take augment, rather than replace, the work of a human. Think of Spot as the member of the bomb squad team, which goes into a situation to identify a package or suspicious looking device. Much safer and smarter than having a human do it.

Spot is an incredibly safe way of putting together data, take video or photos of dangerous environments we’d rather humans didn’t have to go into. In effect, Spot is less spooky, and more indicative of just how far robotics as a field of endeavour has come.

Why then, would Hyundai want to invest so heavily in something so far removed from what it does best, that is manufacture vehicles with four wheels? The answer is more obvious than you might think.

Car companies speak more and more about ‘the future of mobility’ and ‘mobility’ in general. Their research into the future and how we will move around the cities we live in, indicates that the world will look very different in 50 or 100 years’ time. That means the vehicles we use will also look very different. Electric vehicles really are only the tip of the iceberg in a congested major city.

Robotics will also help shape the way forward for people with disability. Being confined to a wheelchair could be a thing of the past if the work that is currently being studied is a taster of what robots can eventually do.

Spot is also an example of why manufacturers aren’t just thinking about cars the way they traditionally have. In the same way the electric scooter was a figment of the engineering mind the blink of an eye ago, so too was the concept of a small personal mobile vehicle that in some instances would replace the motor car.

Spot isn’t the weird, spooky device I suspected it might be. In fact, in the flesh – or should that be in the carbon Kevlar – Spot is actually a very clever, highly evolved execution of engineering nous. Humans will be useful for a while, yet.

The post Boston Dynamics’ SPOT is a window into our robotic future appeared first on Drive.

Drive Read More