Artificial Intelligence

Boston Dynamics’ robot dog gets an arm attachment, self-charging capabilities


Boston Dynamics’ “Spot” robot is getting some upgrades. The robot dog officially went on sale to the public last year for a cool $74,500. For the first time in the company’s 29-year history, Boston Dynamics actually started selling robots to the general public, and it’s pretty incredible that you can actually just head to the Boston Dynamics website, press the “add to cart” button, and have a robot dog shipped to your home. The company says it has sold more than 400 Spot units to date, and the robots are out there doing real work, usually monitoring hazardous work sites like “nuclear plants, offshore oil fields, construction sites, and mines.”

After a year of working with businesses and getting feedback, Boston Dynamics is launching a new Spot revision, a long-awaited arm attachment, and some new features.

The Spot Arm

When Spot came out last year, it featured Boston Dynamics’ industry-leading, incredibly stable four-legged locomotion, but in terms of usage, the robot was basically the world’s most advanced mobile webcam. Mostly, you could just bolt things onto Spot and have it walk around—usually a camera, lidar, or some other sensor. Now, with the new “Spot Arm”—a six-degrees-of-freedom gripper that can be mounted to the front of the robot—Spot can actually do stuff and manipulate the environment around it. Boston Dynamics’ latest video shows an arm-equipped Spot opening doors, picking up laundry, dragging around a cinderblock, and flipping switches and valves. Since this is a Boston Dynamics video, there’s also a ton of fun footage like three Spots playing jump rope, planting a tree, and drawing the Boston Dynamics logo with a piece of chalk.

The arm is not just a siloed device on top of Spot; any arm movement is coordinated with the whole body of the robot, just as a human’s arm works. Boston Dynamics pointed to a 2013 video of the (much bigger) BigDog robot heaving a cinderblock across the room. This advanced “lift with your legs, put your back into it” whole-body movement is the core of Boston Dynamics’ arm locomotion.

In the palm of the gripper is a 4K color camera, a ToF (Time of Flight) sensor for depth imaging, and LEDs for light. The camera is great to not only see what you’re trying to pick up but also as a movable inspection camera that offers a lot more flexibility compared to the stationary face- and back-mounted cameras. The arm weighs 17.6 lbs (8kg) and with a half-meter extension can lift 11 lbs (5kg). The gripper’s peak clamp force is 130N at the tip of the gripper, and the grip strength gets stronger closer to the palm of the gripper. Depending on age, the average human’s peak grip strength is anywhere from 330N (adult) to 140N (an 80-year-old), so it sounds like Spot is in the realm of normal human grip strength, at least to start with. Either way, it’s good enough to turn a doorknob. It’s especially impressive that in this video, Spot demoed opening a smooth, round doorknob, not an easier-to-open ADA-compliant door handle, which is what most robot/door interactions focus on. It can even make sure the door doesn’t hit it in the butt on the way out.

Just like for regular movement, controlling the arm via the tablet uses a user-friendly “supervised autonomy” system. You tell the robot what to grab, and it will figure out how to grab it using all the joints of the arm and legs. There’s even a special “door opening” mode, where the user points at the doorknob, enters which side of the door the hinge is on, and Spot will do the rest. There’s also an API for the arm control, allowing developers to make their own control interface.

Boston Dynamics’ robots are all about handling areas that are normally designed for humans, and the arm gives Spot a lot of capabilities it previously didn’t have. It was always able to go up steps, but now it can open the door at the top of the steps. It was always able to monitor things in dangerous areas, but now it has a chance of actually doing something in that area, like flipping a switch or turning a valve.

It was really refreshing to see Spot Explorer listed on Boston Dynamics’ website with a standard shopping interface and a public price, but the Spot Arm returns to the usual business of selling robots, where the price isn’t public and you have to “contact sales” in order to buy one. So we have no idea how much it costs. Spot has a whole selection of accessories ranging from $1,650 for an extra charger to $38,950 (not a typo) for a thermal camera, so if you do ring up the sales department about the Spot Arm, be prepared for some sticker shock.

The new version of Spot: Spot Enterprise

The first, $74,500 version of Spot was the “Spot Explorer,” and now, seven months later, a new version of Spot called “Spot Enterprise” is being released. (Are we doing yearly robot releases now?) Boston Dynamics calls Spot Enterprise a “re-imagining of Spot,” which “leverages upgraded hardware for improved safety, communications, and behavior in remote environments.” The headline feature is the ability to self-charge via an included charging dock, where, just like a robot vacuum, Spot can park itself on the charging dock when it is hungry low on power. If Spot has missions that require walking long distances, you can have multiple docks at various points in the mission where it can stop, charge up, and resume whatever it was doing. The robot takes about two hours to fully charge.

The dock also connects a wired Ethernet to the bot, so you can quickly offload data over something other than Wi-Fi. Speaking of Wi-Fi, there’s also a better Wi-Fi connection now: dual-band 802.11ac, where the “Explorer” version only has 2.4GHz b/g/n. There are also a few commonsense additions, like the ability to cut power to the payload attachment when you aren’t using it and the ability to opt out of Boston Dynamics’ performance metrics.

Like the Spot Arm, the price of Spot Enterprise is not public. Enterprise’s exclusive features seem to just be the new Wi-Fi and self-charging, and the Spot Arm and Web app can work with the “base model” Explorer version of Spot.

The Web app

Previously, Spot was only controllable via the Android tablet that ships with the robot or by running a program, but a new “Scout” Web app now lets you control Spot over a network right from a Web browser. Scout isn’t cloud-based but instead runs off a 1U rackmount server called a “site hub” that you’ll need to install onsite. This also means that remote control security is entirely up to you—if you’re in a really secure area, you can air-gap Spot in a local network. If you want to work from home and march Spot around a remote facility, you can do that, too. Multiple people can collaborate remotely with Scout—the Web app serves one driver and multiple viewers of the data, with joining as easy as sending a link.

The Web app does about what you would expect, letting users control Spot manually, run autonomous missions, view numerous camera and sensor feeds, and take pictures. For cameras, you have full pan/tilt/zoom support if you have that version of the Spot Cam. Like the Android tablet the Web app has obstacle detection and a stairs mode. Spot can auto-dock once it’s in range of a charger and even crawl under low obstacles. If something goes really wrong and Spot falls over, there’s a self-righting function. If Spot walks out of Wi-Fi range and loses connectivity, it will automatically backtrack until it gets a connection again. There is even a click-to-move mode, which is great for high-latency connections.

Every announcement today seems to be made with the goal of giving Spot more self-sufficiency. The arm makes it so Spot can now open doors and more fully traverse a location without the need for a local human concierge. The self-charging Spot Enterprise means Spot can now charge up without a human needing to flip it over and plug it in. The Web app means you can now control Spot remotely without needing a human to hold an Android tablet within Spot’s Wi-Fi range. The whole goal here seems to be to do a one-time setup of Spot in a dangerous area, leave, and then control everything remotely.



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