Boston Dynamics’ Spot adds self-charging to live at remote sites forever
February 2, 2021
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Boston Dynamics’ robotic dog, Spot, is getting a lot more self-sufficient. Today the company is announcing Spot Enterprise, a new version of the robot that features a charging stand to top-up its batteries without any human interaction. The robotics company is also announcing Scout, a new browser-based control system that offers a streamlined interface for piloting Spot over the internet, as well as a new robotic arm to help the robot “grasp, lift, carry, place, and drag a wide variety of objects.”

The new features follow Boston Dynamics’ announcement last June that it was making the Spot Explorer robot available to any company that could afford its $74,500 price tag. The way Boston Dynamics describes it, today’s announcements are a response to the kinds of features Spot’s early buyers have been asking for. The company says there are currently over 400 Spot robots out in the world.

“Customers in a lot of industries have sites with important equipment that are largely unstaffed, and it could take hours to dispatch someone to go check on something relatively simple,” Spot’s chief engineer Zack Jackowski tells me over a video call. “What they want to do is to put a Spot there permanently. That way, the person who is attached to follow up on an alarm going off or a routine inspection can just dial into a robot, stand up, and go take a look around.”

Boston Dynamics’ web-based Scout software is part of its attempt to streamline remote control. For now, it mostly turns Spot into an expensive telepresence robot. Boston Dynamics tells me its new arm doesn’t work with its web-based software yet, making Spot better suited to inspecting and photographing an environment rather than physically interacting with it. Once the robotic arm is integrated with Scout, however, the robot should be able to do things like operate valves, pull levers, or turn handles, while its operator sits hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

Scout works with the company’s existing Spot Explorer, as well as the new Spot Enterprise robots. Although the new robot also features other upgrades like a more powerful CPU designed to run more advanced autonomy algorithms in the future, its self-charging capabilities are the major new feature. While the current Spot Explorer has around 90 minutes of battery life, the new Spot Enterprise can live on a remote site with a charging station “indefinitely.” When combined with Scout, the hope is that businesses can use Spot as an alternative to dispatching personnel to remote sites.

Spot finds its charging station using the QR code-style “fiducial marker” you can see behind its hind legs.
Image: Boston Dynamics

The charging station works using “fiducial markers,” small QR-code-like pictures that Spot’s cameras can identify and use to navigate. Once it’s close enough to the charging station to see its marker, Spot is able to position and lower itself so it comes into contact with the charging connectors on the stand. The stand also includes a hardwired internet connection, which makes it quicker and more reliable to upload sensor data gathered by Spot during its travels.

Scout needs to work over slow internet connections because Spot is designed to be deployed in remote locations like offshore oil fields or underground mines. Jackowski estimates that controlling Spot only needs a “couple of megabits” of internet bandwidth (for reference, Netflix currently recommends 3 Mbps of bandwidth for streaming in SD). This low bandwidth requirement is achieved by doing as much of the heavy processing onsite as possible, so Spot isn’t reliant on an internet connection to get around. The system relies on a Boston Dynamics server installed on the same local network as the robot to process and compress Spot’s data before sending it over the internet.

Scout’s interface shows a live video feed from the robot, alongside a series of simple controls.
Image: Boston Dynamics

It’s been possible to control Spot over the internet before now. Companies like Rocos and Formant have offered third-party control tools, and Boston Dynamics itself has also demonstrated software that it said would let potential Spot customers remotely test drive the robot around an assault course in its headquarters. But Scout is the company’s first streamlined, web-based software for controlling its robots, and customers will be able to use it to control their robots regardless of where they may be in the world.

To show off the software, Boston Dynamics let me take one of their new Spot Enterprise robots for a spin, giving me control of the robot in their Waltham, MA lab from my apartment in London over 3,000 miles away.

It will not surprise you to learn that using Scout to pilot Spot through my browser was a laggy experience — nevertheless, it was still manageable. I could either control the robot like an action video game with my WASD keys (Jackowski tells me a game controller paired to my PC would have also worked), or via a point-and-click control scheme that’s not unlike what you’d find in a classic adventure game. You click on a point in the environment, and Spot walks to it.

Controlling Spot felt like playing a low-resolution video game via a laggy streaming service. There was a significant delay between me pressing a button and the robot responding, and I’d probably have been constantly crashing into things were it not for Spot’s built-in obstacle avoidance technology. It felt like playing a game with assists like invisible walls turned on. I’d click a patch of ground behind a traffic cone, and Spot would walk to it while avoiding the cone. I directed the robot up a set of narrow stairs, and Spot walked up them while keeping itself away from the sides. There’s even an especially video game-like third-person view that uses the robot’s sensors to show its position in a virtual environment.

Scout can use the robot’s sensors to show the robot in a video game-like third-person view. Click in the environment to have Spot move to that point.
Screenshot: Boston Dynamics / Scout

It’s also possible to cede control to the robot completely in cases where it’s patrolling the same route every time. This can be pre-programmed by Spot’s operator, and the robot can be set to dock and charge itself between patrols.

Remote control like this carries its risks. Boston Dynamics set up its demonstration to let me log into the control interface for the robot without a username or password, simply by following a link sent to me by the team. But in the real word Jackowski tells me there’ll be a lot more security around the 70-pound plus robots.

“We’ve implemented best practices for security at every layer in the system,” Jackowski says. “The robot and the server both practice full data encryption both in transit and at rest,” and Boston Dynamics uses “standard battle hardened web protocol technologies.” He adds that all the equipment in use is taken through a security audit by a third-party company, and said he expects most customers to use VPNs to add a further layer of protection to the connection between an operator’s local system and the robot’s remote site.

The video feed is laggy and low-res, but the robot’s obstacle avoidance makes it manageable.
Screenshot: Boston Dynamics / Scout

Beyond Spot Enterprise and Scout, Boston Dynamics is also announcing the release of the Spot Arm, a robotic limb that attaches to the head of the robot that can do things like “close valves, pull levers and turn handles and knobs.” It’s functionally similar to what Boston Dynamics showed off in previous viral videos, like this one from 2018, but it’s more robustly designed and ready to be used in the real world. Jackowski tells me the team has integrated the arm with Spot’s existing controls, and has pre-programmed it with certain actions like being able to open a door or turn a valve. It’s not yet compatible with Scout, but that’s apparently in the works for the future.

While he wouldn’t say exactly how much the new Spot Enterprise will cost, Jackowski admitted it’ll be more expensive than the existing $74,500 Spot (which Boston Dynamics plans to continue to sell). Meanwhile, the robotic arm will also be made available to owners of existing Spot robots, so long as they’re prepared to send their devices in to Boston Dynamics to have it professionally fitted.

Boston Dynamics recently made headlines after automaker Hyundai acquired a controlling stake in the company in a deal that valued it at $1.1 billion. When I asked about the deal, Jackowski said that it hadn’t resulted in any change in direction for the team, and said they were excited to benefit from Hyundai’s extensive manufacturing supply chains and expertise. Even before the deal was announced, however, it’s clear Boston Dynamics has progressed beyond moonshots and entered a far more practical phase of its life, allowing any company with the cash to buy its robots for use in the real-world.

But that doesn’t mean its R&D work is at any risk of slowing down. Selling each new product means getting feedback from real-world customers about what the company needs to work on next. That feedback loop will only intensify with the release of the Spot Arm. “We have some ideas for how folks are going to use it, but they’re gonna come back to us really quickly and say no no you didn’t quite get it totally right,” Jackowski predicts. “Let us tell you what’s gonna make this really valuable.”

“When we introduce this arm, it’s gonna be like the original Spot again.”

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