The lifelike robots of Boston Dynamics have been surprising and terrifying the internet for years, but the company has a much bigger milestone in store: the first commercial product ever – a quadrupedal robot called Spot – is almost ready to go on sale .
Spot is currently being tested in a number of "proof-of-concept" environments, said Boston Dynamics CEO, Marc Raibert The edge, including package delivery and surveying work. And although there is no fixed launch date for the commercial version of Spot, it should be available within a few months, Raibert said, and certainly before the end of the year.
"We are working on some final changes to the design," said the CEO. "We tested them relentlessly."
Raibert showed the robots at Amazon & # 39; 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 couple of Spotrobots mixed in with the crowds, under the supervision of two Boston Dynamics employees who control the machines using custom game tablets.
The viral videos from Boston Dynamics often present the robots as polished and fully self-managed agents, but it is well known that the machines generally require human handlers. They are able to navigate through an environment autonomously, but only if their environment has been mapped in advance. They are resistant to kicking and sliding and keep their balance in difficult terrain, but they themselves do not determine where to walk.
And just like with any new technology, they sometimes do not work well. During a live demo, one of the Spot robots collapsed without explanation, folded their legs, and tumbled to the ground before a replacement turner was deployed on stage.
But as the robots' handlers have shown, they are pre-eminently easy to check – so simple that I could do it. With the help of a D-pad you can control the robot as you would an RC car or a mechanical toy. With a quick tap on the live video streamed live from the front camera of the robot, you can select a destination you want to walk to and with another tap you can take control of a robot arm mounted on the chassis. It all feels very intuitive.
The robot arm is a good example of the ambitious plans of Boston Dynamics for Spot. Instead of selling the robot as a single-use tool, it positions it as a & # 39; mobility platform & # 39; that can be customized by users to perform a series of tasks.
A Spot robot with 3D cameras can map environments such as construction sites, identify hazards and make progress. When equipped with a robotic arm, it has even more flexibility, able to open doors and manipulate objects.
At Re: MARS, a Spot with a robotic arm used it to pick up items, including a stuffed animal that was then presented to a police dog with meat and blood. The dog was not impressed by the robot, but fortunately, at least, to receive the toy.
Raibert says it is this "athletic intelligence" that Boston Dynamics will sell through its robots. Think of it as Amazon & # 39; s AWS business, but instead of offering computer power on tap, the robot mobility.
The vast majority of bots currently used in warehouses and factories can only perform main tasks that are planned to the millimeter in advance. But if robots start working alongside people in more dynamic environments, they must be able to respond to hazards and changing circumstances. These are pre-eminently human skills: tasks that we complete without thinking – such as catching a ball – but they stomp anything but the most advanced bots.
On stage, Raibert demonstrated these skills by showing a video in which Spot Robot was frustrated in his attempts to open a door. The robot grabs the door handle and is only thrown away by an engineer with a hockey stick. "We think this is one of the most important things we do," Raibert said. "The (robots) can deviate from the expected behavior."
But while Boston Dynamics has a clear vision for its robots, it still needs to prove that it can turn that vision into a viable business. Will companies buy Spot robots for surveillance and surveying when people are always cheaper? And can Boston Dynamics compete with rivals that have emerged in recent years with their own legged robots?
Since the company started developing legged robots for the US Army more than ten years ago, startups including the Swiss ANYbotics and Chinese Unitree have developed quadrupedal machines that look just as nimble as Spot.
Raibert told The edge the company's current challenge was simply scaling up production. Currently it only has 50 Beta Spot units in its stables. "We produce them at a reasonably high rate for an early product," said Raibert. "We aim for 1,000 per year."
The CEO of the robotics would also not give a prize for Spot, just saying that the commercial version "will be much less expensive than prototypes we think they will be cheaper than the quadrupeds of other people."
He did, however, reveal that the company had already found paying customers, including construction companies in Japan testing Spot as a way to monitor work progress on sites. "There are a remarkable number of construction companies that we are talking about," Raibert said. "But we have a number of other applications that are promising – (including) in hostile environments where the cost of having people there is high."
These are the types of tasks that robots are excellent at in history: the boring, the dirty or the dangerous. Toil in factories or unsafe environments such as disaster zones and nuclear power plants. Boston Dynamics apparently hopes that its machines can continue this tradition. It's just a matter of teaching a new robot dog a few old tricks.