What is SpotMini’s level of autonomy? That was the first question that came to mind last week when Boston Dynamics released a video of its SpotMini robot dog opening a door. Now we have a little more insight into that question.
Boston Dynamics released a new video (watch below) testing SpotMini’s robustness or ability to deal with disturbances. As you’ll see in the video, a human yielding a hockey stick tries to stop SpotMini from opening the door. But, after a brief struggle, the robot eventually walks through the door.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Boston Dynamics is very tight-lipped about its robots. But the Waltham, Mass.-based company wrote a candid description for this latest video, delving into SpotMini’s autonomy.
“A person (not shown) drives the robot up to the door, points the hand at the door handle, then gives the ‘GO’ command, both at the beginning of the video and again at 42 seconds. The robot proceeds autonomously from these points on, without help from a person. A camera in the hand finds the door handle, cameras on the body determine if the door is open or closed and navigate through the doorway. Software provides locomotion, balance and adjusts behavior when progress gets off track. The ability to tolerate and respond automatically to disturbances like these improves successful operation of the robot. (Note: This testing does not irritate or harm the robot.)”
So SpotMini isn’t completely autonomous, yet. In this latest video, SpotMini isn’t autonomous until it reaches the door. But its ability to autonomously brace itself and tug harder on the door as the human violently pulls on its tether is impressive.
Opening Doors Isn’t Easy for Robots
Keep this in mind: opening doors isn’t exactly easy for robots. Door-opening robots aren’t as flashy as backflipping robots, but doors and robots don’t mix. Doors were the kryptonite of the humanoid robots at the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge. And back in 2009, iRobot was working on ChemBot, a shape-shifting robot blob designed to squeeze underneath doors rather than open them.
We have recently seen robots open doors. Ghost Robotics’ Minitaur, a small quadruped robot, can jump and manipulate a handle. Heck, we even saw Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot push open a door. One thing you’ll notice about these recent examples, however, is the robots never open doors with round knobs. There’s obviously a reason for that: it’s too difficult.
So if you want to prevent the “killer robots” from finding you, just hide behind a door with a knob.
Boston Dynamics does have its doubters, of course. Many experts, including Rodney Brooks, founder of iRobot and Rethink Robotics, don’t think any of Boston Dynamics’ viral videos would work as well outside of its lab. Brooks recently said he “will be impressed when someone not from the company can take the robots in a truck to a location of their choice, turn the robots on, and command them to go through a door, and they do it. I suspect this demo is many, many years away from that capability.”
SpotMini Gearing up for Commercialization?
Is Boston Dynamics gearing up to commercialize SpotMini? Perhaps. Softbank bought Boston Dynamics for an undisclosed amount in June 2017. And we saw the first glimpse of Softbank’s influence in November 2017 when SpotMini re-emerged with a friendlier, sleeker design.
This is also the second SpotMini video in about one week and the third in three months of the re-designed SpotMini. Boston Dynamics has mentioned SpotMini delivering packages or working as a security guard. To do this, SpotMini will need to be well-equipped to explore environments built for humans and dealing with disturbances.
Did Boston Dynamics just open new doors for robotics? Only time will tell.