A ROBOTIC DOG NAMED SPOT

Date:28 June 2022

BY TIANA CLINE

Spot, a quadruped robot dog built by Boston Dynamics, has made its way to South Africa. Highly agile, robust and durable, applications for this pioneering machine seem almost boundless.

If you can play a video game, you can control Spot. It’s that easy. This robotic quadruped, that resembles a canine, works with a bespoke tablet controller that looks and feels like a large Nintendo Switch device. 

Spot Enterprise, the newly launched industrial version of the robot dog, is available with a robotic arm attachment that helps it to grasp, lift, carry and drag a wide variety of objects. What really sets Spot Enterprise apart is that while the original Spot (known as Spot Explorer) has around 90 minutes of battery life, Spot Enterprise can exist for long periods of time on a remote site using its own self-charging docking station. Without the controller, both versions of Spot can be operated remotely using Boston Dynamics’ web-browser-based platform known as Scout.

 

 

 

 

Quadruped or biped?

The sight of a mechanical canine walking towards you can be a little unnerving, especially if you’ve seen the ‘Metalhead’ episode of Black Mirror, where robot dogs hunt human survivors. Thankfully, that’s not why Spot was created. Interestingly, Spot isn’t the only robot made by Boston Dynamics. 

Founded back in 1992, the company was a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the world-renowned research university. Spot is the first quadruped robot that Boston Dynamics has made available for retail. You may also have heard of Stretch, the warehouse robot, or the bipedal humanoid robot called Atlas, that can dance, do parkour, and even perform a gymnastics routine. Atlas features a state-of-the-art control system as well as one of the world’s most compact mobile hydraulic systems. It’s incredibly agile, and weighs just less than 90 kg, thanks to its lightweight printed parts. Atlas isn’t for sale just yet, but for a cool R1.9 million or so, you’ll be able to take Spot home with you. But that wouldn’t just be for companionship… 

Who is using Spot?

Law enforcement and rescue: Fondly known as Digidog, the NYPD has tested out Spot in a number of high-risk situations, from hostage hold-ups to search-and-rescue operations. When it was too dangerous to send in a human first responder, Spot was used to carry food to hostages and enter potentially hazardous locations. 

With the ability to carry up to 14 kg of equipment, the mechanical canine is being used by the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services bomb squad in its high-risk work, and by the Honolulu Police Department to conduct contactless temperature checks and to deliver food and medicine to homeless people. 

 

Military: Could battlefields of the future become robotised? By putting Spot through simulated scenarios, that’s a question French military academy École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr is looking to answer. Interestingly, Spot was first developed to carry ammunition, so it’s fitting that the robot dog recently appeared alongside soldiers during training exercises. It’s reported that the military has been using Spot to analyse the difference it could make to troop and battlefield operations, especially when it comes to reconnaissance manoeuvres. 

Academia: The University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Intelligent Systems (IIS) was the first academic institution in South Africa to acquire Spot. According to the director of IIS, Spot forms part of the university’s forward-thinking 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) strategy, where it will help researchers to make robotics a part of the academic agenda. 

NASA: NeBula-SPOT was built for NASA to autonomously explore complex environments such as caves, tunnels, pits and other sub-surface terrain types to map out areas of scientific interest. These Spot models have been specifically designed to work together to navigate treacherous terrain, and are currently being tested in locations that mimic the Martian landscape. 

Public health: During the pandemic, smaller versions of Spot were seen kitted with iPads, turning them into mobile telemedicine platforms at hospitals.

Industry: Oil producers are despatching Spot on their rigs for inspection work, to help compile status reports, and to search for hydrocarbon leaks. Using 3D laser scanning technology to capture and monitor progress, Spot brings much-needed automation to the field for efficient data collection at construction sites. 

INTERVIEW: SPOT GOES MINING

Meet Jamie van Schoor, the CEO and founder of Dwyka Mining Services. He is also the man behind the company with the rights for the Enterprise version of Spot in South Africa. We spoke to him to find out how this robot will change the mining landscape. 

Popular Mechanics: Why would you say that Spot is the future of mining? 

Jamie van Schoor: A lot of our work involves environmental management. We have systems that monitor underground conditions – carbon monoxide, temperature, heat, airflow – so we have a very good under-standing of the challenges associated with those variables. Ideally, we shouldn’t be sending people into underground areas where conditions are hazardous, especially if we don’t need to. That’s where Spot Enterprise comes in. 

PM: So you feel the solution to many of these issues is Spot?

JVS: Absolutely – by using this highly agile robot, you’ll get the data you need without having to put a human’s life at risk. An example of this is when you’re blasting or charging an area – people need to leave the mine and go up to the surface. This is essentially a wasted period of time, when people have to wait for blast fumes to clear… It can take up to an hour and a half, especially if mines don’t have proper ventilation. During that time, Spot could already be collecting valuable data. In mining, this is called short interval control – you want quicker data to be able to make quicker decisions. 

PM: Where do you see Spot being used the most? 

JVS: Spot is so versatile and competent in a variety of environments. Our vast experience with aerial drones – and point clouds on drones – has shown us that there are limitations to where we can take drones. But because Spot can walk on the ground, we can get access areas where drones cannot fly.

PM: Why is this important in South African mines? 

JVS: Our mining techniques are very different to everywhere else in the world. Our context is often low, narrow-reef mining, where you drive flatbed vehicles. Spot can now access these types of areas, because it fits. It’s filling a gap, so to speak, enabling us to obtain data from key areas.

PM: Are people afraid that Spot will take their jobs?

JVS: Spot is about augmenting human efforts. If I can save half an hour of my day by getting Spot to do one task, what other things can I achieve in that time to make me more productive? Mining is complex. It’s dynamic, but it’s also unpredictable. Spot is obtaining reliable, repeatable data that can be benchmarked for the future. In mining, time is crucial, and Spot can really help in that regard. 

PM: Spot can mine, but we’ve also heard that it can dance…

JVS: There’s this misconception that Spot is a dancing showman. Yes, there’s a whole suite of software to get Spot to dance, but when you see this robot in action it feels different. It’s 34 kg of highly complex machine that took years and years to develop. Where robots with tracks on an underground surface get stuck, robots with legs such as Spot can navigate and manoeuvre past obstacles, and that’s what’s impressive. This is ultimately a heavy-duty robot constructed for industry. 

Photography: Tiana Cline, courtesy images

This article first appeared in the print edition of Popular Mechanics, in the March/April 2022 issue. Subscribe online by visiting hmshop.co.za. 

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