When Boston Dynamics first revealed a prototype of its Spot robot to the world back in 2016, it featured a gripper on the end of an articulated arm that was curiously missing when the company officially made Spot available for sale last year. Seven months later, the Spot Arm is finally ready to help with laundry, gardening, and disposing of all those cinderblocks you have laying around.
In late 2019, Spot was first made available to a small number of companies that promised interesting use cases for the robot. It was part of an experiment to determine how Spot would perform outside of Boston Dynamics’ labs and testing facilities. The following year, in June 2020, Spot was made available to anyone promising not to use it for evil who could afford its $74,500 price tag.
Although many with deep pockets are eagerly awaiting Boston Dynamics to make its most capable robot Atlas available to the public, the robotics maker is instead kicking off 2021 by celebrating its recent majority sale to the Hyundai Motor Group with a handful of upgrades to Spot.
The most interesting update is the arrival of Spot Arm, the accessory that really grabbed the world’s attention when Spot was first revealed. With the arm attached, Spot transitions from being a simple reconnaissance and data-collecting robot to one that can physically interact with the world around it. The arm can be used to grab, lift and carry, place, and even drag a large variety of objects up to a certain weight. In addition to turning off valves or pulling levers in places not safe for humans to visit, the arm can also facilitate more direct pathway planning, because it can even be used to open doors that otherwise would have been an impossible obstacle to navigate.
Boston Dynamics teased the arrival of the Spot Arm this week in a video demonstrating a series of potential applications that are arguably more compelling than just walking around a factory looking for leaky pipes. In the video, Spot is able to use the arm for picking laundry up off the floor, digging holes and planting trees, and even using a piece of chalk to draw a giant version of the Boston Dynamics logo on a parking lot.
There are some more conventional upgrades, too. Like Sony’s considerably cheaper but less-capable Aibo robot dog, a new version of Spot called Enterprise Spot will ship with a dock and self-charging capabilities, meaning that when it determines its battery is too low to complete a task, it will autonomously return to its home base and plunk down on the dock to recharge itself without any human intervention. For applications that involve repetitive routine inspections and data collection, Enterprise Spot will potentially require very little day-to-day human interaction. Another, more pessimistic way of looking at it is that Enterprise Spot could potentially put another human out of work.
Enterprise Spot also includes upgrades to its hardware for better safety and communications with both improved wifi and communication ports, which will allow it to transfer large amounts of collected data faster than the original Spot is able to. The current model, Scout Explorer, is operated using a wireless controller built around a touchscreen tablet remote, but Enterprise Spot will also give users access to Boston Dynamics’ web-based Scout software to allow multiple bots to be monitored and controlled from a single “virtual control room.” This simplified interface can be used to activate pre-programmed routines and missions the robot will execute autonomously, while still allowing manual control when the robot needs to be repositioned for safety or to make observations that are otherwise obscured without the bot realizing it.
For decades, most practical robots have been relegated to factories building cars or grabbing parts off assembly lines. With its new arm, Spot is the first robot that looks like it could finally start delivering on science fiction’s promise of robots capable of performing domestic tasks, too. Suddenly that $74,500 price tag doesn’t sound so bad.