08-05 Spot cheerleader

[Image above] When Boston Dynamics premiered their robot Spot, they likely never imagined it would be used for cheerleading. Credit: Guardian Sport, YouTube

Back in 2018, we reported on work being done at robotics design company Boston Dynamics on Spot, a dog-esque robot that would be their latest offering in industry robotic helpers.

Initial videos of Spot looked a bit spooky, as the robot did not have a sleek casing designed for it yet. But by the time Spot hit the market in September 2019, a smooth yellow cover gave Spot a distinctive look.

Initial testing of Spot (left) compared to final version (right). Credit: Boston Dynamics, YouTube (left image, right image)

When Boston Dynamics created Spot, they imagined the robot being used in hazardous environments, such as construction, oil and gas, electric utility, and mining.

And then came 2020.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the need for robots in traditionally human-dominated environments such as public safety and healthcare increased immensely. And I’ve watched with amusement as Spot stepped in to help in these roles, including…

Aiding communication between COVID-19 patients and medical staff,

Credit: KTNV Channel 13 Las Vegas, YouTube

Patrolling parks to remind visitors to maintain social distance,

Credit: CNBC Television, YouTube

And cheerleading at sports events.

Credit: Guardian Sport, YouTube

The Boston Dynamics webpage on Spot does list public safety, healthcare, and entertainment as applications for Spot, but as Boston Dynamics founder and chairman Marc Raibert explains in an interview with CNBC television, these applications were not expected to be the primary ones.

“We started out using Spot in a variety of hazardous environments, like refineries and electric power plants. But now that this pandemic is on, people realize that there are lots of situations where you’d rather not have human contact. So the robots come in there and have been a useful tool,” he says.

For Spot to perform well in these applications, though, requires the proper code. And for Boston Dynamics engineers, upgrading and improving code for Spot during the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a bit of a challenge.

“Usually, this work is done in the company’s headquarters where there’s ample space and resources to stress-test robots. But since the pandemic hit, the firm’s engineers have been forced to improvise, and dozens of Spot units (71 in total) have been sent home with employees to be tested in front rooms, yards, and basements around the country,” an article by The Verge begins.

The article interviews several Boston Dynamics engineers about their experience testing Spot at home, with surprising—and often funny—anecdotes. However, probably the most important conclusion to remember is that Spot is still at heart an industrial machine.

“A lot of people who aren’t familiar with Spot think it would be great for in-home use, either helping the elderly, the sick, or people with special needs,” says engineer Sam Seifert in the article. “I think that’s a great target to keep in our sights, but the technology needs to improve by leaps and bounds before we’re ready to operate in a constrained space around humans.”

So, Spot won’t come to a home near you anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean everyday people will not have a chance to engage with it.

San Francisco-based Formant is a monitoring and operations infrastructure for anyone who works with robots. And they recently announced a new program called “Walk with Spot” to accelerate the development of the robot’s applications. By filling out a form at this link, you may get the chance to operate a Spot remotely from your home. So what are you waiting for? You could be the next person to have the fun experience of crashing Spot into a bush.