Boston Dynamics' Spot robot dog has a list of notable achievements under its belt, like looking after the welfare of medical staff and herding sheep like a real dog. But now, Spot is ready for its most interactive adventure yet: letting you take it for a walk.
To showcase its software, San Francisco-based Formant is offering everyday people like you and me the chance to walk Spot around the Bay Area. The best part? You don't have to leave the house. Spot can be walked from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Formant's platform lets humans manage a wide range of robots — including drones, underwater robots, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and quadrupeds like Spot — remotely through a web browser.
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I'm fortunate enough to be the first "regular" person to drive Spot using Formant's software. But sitting in my living room with a PlayStation controller connected to my laptop, I'm starting to get concerned about the welfare of the 2.75-foot, four-legged Spot under my watch. Will I be able to keep this $74,500 robot from stumbling over rocks, walking into a wall or breaking a leg?
Fortunately, I don't need to worry too much about the actual mechanics of walking the robot, as Spot does all of the hard work for me. "Spot's fantastic because it's the first robot that can reliably navigate the world in a non-structured environment," says Jeff Linnell, CEO of Formant.
All I have to do is make sure I don't take Spot for an accidental swim in Stow Lake in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the site Formant has chosen for my walk.
I'm in my living room, about a mile away from where I'm controlling Spot remotely. Seeing the view from the robot's onboard cameras in my browser is somewhat surreal. While I know I'm controlling Spot in real time, on a route I regularly walk myself, the experience looks and feels almost like a video game.
Thankfully, I'm not driving Spot entirely on my own, so I can't go too wild with trying to do a backflip or twerk in the middle of the park. The Formant team, including Linnell, is on a Zoom call with me to guide me through the process. I'm sharing my screen with them so they can see my controls and give me help on what to look out for, while Spot's handler on the ground stands by to be an additional set of eyes and ears.
The browser screen also has a range of metrics like battery life for me to keep an eye on. "Anything that an engineer might want to observe about a robot doing a mission, we've got all that information coming in," Linnell says.
For my 45-minute walk, Formant has kept things simple on the screen, even though the robot is actually sending around 200 pieces of data. I only see a camera showing Spot's view and a map with GPS coordinates of my location. But another operator, or an engineer back at base for example, might want to see other signals like motor torque to make sure everything's working as expected, explains Linnell.
Starting off in a small clearing near the lake, I tilt the right controller stick in the direction I want Spot to go. It trots along at a gentle walking pace. Tilt the stick more and Spot starts to pick up speed.
I get too confident, too soon. Tilting the left controller stick while in walk mode causes Spot to move in a sideways direction, and before I know it, Spot comes crashing down into some shrubs. (Thank goodness it wasn't the lake).
After a quick reset and my copious apologies for almost destroying the robot dog, we're back up and running. This time, I navigate up a small path to walk around the lake. The path is uneven, with both paved and dirt areas of the sidewalk, but Spot handles them with ease so I don't have to worry about a stray tree root or a rock in its path.
We encounter a few curious onlookers, including a couple of kids who persuade their parents to stop the car to take a closer look to take a look at this strange robot canine. I switch Spot into "pose" mode, and perform a downward dog for their entertainment. It can also make it tilt its body side-to-side and look upward toward the sky. The rest of the walk goes off without a hitch and after about 45 minutes of strolling around the lake, I feel confident in my robot-walking abilities. I make Spot sit when its battery is running low.
After the walk, I have access to comprehensive data from my browser window. There are readouts on battery status and the LIDAR map from Spot, just to name a few. I can even do a "live" replay of the walk and see views from the camera I might have missed in the moment, like when some curious humans were snapping photos as the robodog strolled by.
You can apply for the opportunity to take Spot for a test drive by filling out a form through Formant's website. All you need to drive Spot is a computer and a reliable internet connection. (You don't need a game controller, but it does make the experience more fun.)
The company is looking for a wide range of people — including kids and people who don't have much of an interest in technology — to test out its software. "The public is going to start interfacing with robots on a daily basis in our world and we need to get used to it," says Linnell.
Walking a $75,000 robot dog is definitely an experience I won't forget anytime soon. Even if I did make it crash into a bush.
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