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Just a few decades ago, only futurists and a few screenwriters like James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven, or Stanley Kubrick were considered experts in robotics. Although these bizarre, mechanical creatures looked absolutely breathtaking on screen, they often seemed way too far-fetched to exist in real life. Still, technology advances faster than most of us can keep up with, and now we aren’t that far from picking up a robot off a shelf in a convenience store and paying for it with our Barclays credit card.  

Image credit: ixbt.com

Boston Dynamics, an American engineering and design company, is already an acknowledged leader and pioneer in the complex field of robotics. The company is primarily known for the development of a series of highly-mobile, so-called “legged”, robots such as BigDog, LittleDog, Cheetah, and Atlas. All these machines were equipped with legs for movement as opposed to wheels or tracks, which had been the prevailing mechanism before Boston Dynamics launched its revolutionary solutions. Robots that can actually walk opened up a whole new world of opportunities and applications; they can reach places where wheels and caterpillar tracks can’t get to, and they can cross terrain and overcome obstacles that would cause clumsy, cumbersome machines to flip over. SPOT, the company’s latest product, is set to astonish the tech-world with its groundbreaking functions.

What is SPOT?

A compact, dog-like robot, SPOT was first introduced in 2016. Since then, SPOT has developed from a research platform to a final product and is now commercially available for $74,500. A potential customer will get a SPOT robot, two batteries, a SPOT charger, a tablet controller and charger, and a durable case for storage and transportation in the basic package. Shipping is free, with delivery in 6-8 weeks.

What does it do?

SPOT is a remarkable piece of engineering and an amazingly capable platform for further development. Boston Dynamics has been leasing samples of its robots out to industry partners to see how SPOT handles real-life environments outside the lab. The small, sturdy machine, light enough for a person to pick up, can perform a number of precise movements, and although an operator controls most of them, SPOT has a handful of things it can do automatically. 

Image credit: tehnot.com

There have been walking robots before, but few of them have had SPOT’s exceptional sense of balance. SPOT knows how to avoid walls, climb stairs, and mount piles of material with the adroitness of a real dog, and when it feels like it’s about to tip forward, SPOT can adjust to find a better footing. If it does lose its balance and fall over, SPOT will run a protocol to right itself and get back onto its soft, artificial paws. On top of that, cameras on all four sides allow the operator to find the best places for SPOT to plant its feet if the robot’s making its way through loose dirt or sand. 

What are some possible implementations?

It’s highly unlikely that a college student or an average homeowner will ever consider purchasing SPOT to inspect the front yard lawn or to see if the paperboy has already left the morning issue of “The Times”. The price tag of nearly $75K speaks for itself, and for that, a client gets only a basic version of the robot, which is basically an ultra-expensive toy. SPOT was designed to carry a number of sophisticated tools on its back, such as a mechanical ‘arm’ to open doors or pick things up, digital cameras, or equipment for specialized purposes, such as detecting gas leaks at construction sites or oil rigs.

Boston Dynamics reported recently that one of its SPOTs is already on duty in one of Boston’s hospitals, helping to treat patients admitted with Covid-19. The company currently has ambitious plans to expand the use of robots to assist healthcare workers during this and other pandemics. It also grants access to software and hardware products so that other hospitals and robot manufacturers can follow the company’s example. Currently, beta units of SPOT operate in testing mode at various sites, but the company is already working on the next generation.

Is there a future for robots like SPOT? 

Absolutely, but only time will tell how bright that future is going to be. As is usually the case with something new, there are haters – in this case, people who are convinced that robots will rise up and destroy humanity, though it’s worth noting that none of Boston Dynamics’ machines (including SPOT) are powered by artificial intelligence. Though it’s breaking existing robotic standards with its graceful movements, SPOT is always controlled and guided by people. We live in an era where we don’t need to wait hundreds of years to predict what the future will be like. The future is already here. Isn’t that exciting?

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