When Boston Dynamics first showed off its LittleDog robot a decade ago, in 2009, the world hadn’t seen anything like it. With the exception of new-fangled smartphones, the tech world was still obsessing over software, not hardware. Web advertising, mobile apps, and social networks were in. Hardware, by comparison, was prohibitively expensive and, to many, just not worth the effort. The Nest smart thermostat, Pebble smartwatch, and any number of other smart connected physical devices were still a few years away. A dog robot seemed like the stuff of science fiction.
And it was. It took a number of years and further iterations for Boston Dynamics’ canine bots to develop into the sleek creature we know today as Spot. While Boston Dynamics patiently worked on the robot away from prying eyes (with the exception of the occasional hype video to keep our appetites whetted), dog robots were most readily seen in popular culture like Black Mirror’s “Metalhead” episode. They were a novelty, just like sci-fi robots like The Terminator had been in the 1980s. Skynet meets man’s (or woman’s) best friend.
On Tuesday, Boston Dynamics announced that it is finally ready to release Spot into any number of good homes around the world. Or, rather, it is available to industries which could make use of a dog robot able to run at speeds of 3 mph (4.8 kph) for 90 minutes at a time; open doors; create 3D maps of indoor spaces using LIDAR; function in the rain; check for gas leaks, and more. According to the description on a new promo video issued by Boston Dynamics, “Early customers are already testing Spot to monitor construction sites, provide remote inspection at gas, oil and power installations, and in public safety.”
A crowded field
The future sounds bright, right? Well, quite possibly. But, to paraphrase the late, great Biggie Smalls, things done changed. In 2019, robots are cool, but they’re certainly no novelty. If Spot had shipped to customers even half a decade ago, it would have stood largely alone. It could have had its pick of applications and markets to move into.
Today, the commercial robot scene is surprisingly crowded. Switzerland-based rival ANYmal is a similar four-legged canine-inspired robot already being used to inspect offshore power-distribution platforms in the North Sea. Earlier this year, ANYbotics co-founder Péter Fankhauser told me that the company is also working with companies involved with mining, sewage systems, construction sites, agriculture, forestry, and more. Any industry in which there is a requirement for status inspection, progress tracking, and reporting on potential problems, Fankhauser described ANYmal as being a good fit. Most recently, ANYmal’s robot was used as part of the latest DARPA Grand Challenge as a potential search-and-rescue robot for helping find people underground.
Meanwhile, other types of robot, offering a variety of different form factors, have come of age. In addition to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (a.k.a. drones) there have been enormous advances in areas like delivery robots. Starship Technologies is a leader in this increasingly crowded field, with its robots found in an ever-increasing number of cities and university campuses. One of the things a representative for Starship Technologies enthused about to me was the fact that passers-by are totally unbothered by its sidewalk-travelling robots, which resemble autonomous wheeled coolers.
Then there are robots like Cobalt Security Service’s security robots, which patrol the hallways at the Slack offices and elsewhere. And bomb-disposing military robots. And snake robots for helping decommission nuclear power plants. And mapping robots for underground mines. And far more.
Has it left it too late?
This is not to say that Boston Dynamics has necessarily left it too late. It’s always a mistake to write off a company, particularly one with comparatively deep pockets, as leaving it too late to move into a market. Apple TV+ and Disney+ are years behind Netflix, but could easily come to dominate streaming video. Google was nowhere near the first search engine, but, well, when’s the last time you used Lycos or Ask.com?
Since it was purchased by SoftBank in 2017, Boston Dynamics has seemingly shifted its strategy to focus on commercialization. In May 2018, it offered the first hints that Spot would soon be ready to take its first Bambi-like steps as a commercial robot. It didn’t say whether this was because of some major technical breakthrough or because SoftBank, having bought a company which had been focused on R&D since 1992, wanted to make back some money on its investment. We will likely soon have our first indication as companies get to try out Spot for themselves.
What Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot must now prove is that it’s a lot more than an attention-grabbing YouTube star. It must demonstrate to customers who may already be using robots that it can out-perform its peers.
Spot arrived as a glimpse on the horizon at a time when people were just starting to get excited about hardware again. It arrives with customers at a time when robots are not quite an everyday occurrence, but certainly a whole lot more commonplace than they’ve ever been.
Can it do it? Having watched the robotics industry for years now, it’s fascinating to see an early pioneer wade into a mature industry at a relatively late stage. I, for one, am excited to find out what happens next.
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