Rickshaws are wheeled passenger carts that were invented in Japan in the late 1800s. Initially, the rickshaws were pulled by a human. But over time cycle rickshaws (pedicabs), auto rickshaws, and electric rickshaws were invented. It appears we’re on the verge of yet another new type of rickshaw: robo-rickshaws.
Former MythBusters host Adam Savage has a Spot quadruped robot on loan from Boston Dynamics. He will develop and deploy custom hardware and software on Spot throughout the year. The latest challenge tests Spot’s ability to pull Savage around in a self-made, 19th century-style rickshaw.
Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert has often said Spot is versatile, but we’re guessing even he never thought Spot would be used as a rickshaw operator. “I wanted an early video to be a simple task that we give Spot that is fun and evocative and strange — and hilarious,” Savage said, noting that he has had a peculiar, longtime obsession with rickshaws.
The bulk of the video documents the custom hitch Savage built for Spot. There are cargo rails on top of Spot that Savage used to attach the tow hitch to the rickshaw. Fast forward to the 23-minute mark of the video to see Spot actually pull Savage around in the rickshaw.
Savage collaborated with Seth Davis, Boston Dynamics’ head of field application, on the rickshaw application. Spot wasn’t operating in autonomous mode, Davis was remotely controlling him off camera.
Davis said Spot struggled a tad out of the box. “It had a hard time getting going and handling the weight of the rickshaw. Once we got a little bit up the path and going up a small hill, the robot ran out of steam and didn’t have enough strength to pull it.”
However, they noted the first test used Spot’s stock software. With the stock software, Davis said Spot “doesn’t know there’s a weight on its back pushing down, and it doesn’t know it’s pulling a rickshaw behind it. We can use our software through our API to tell the robot those things and get a lot better performance.”
And that’s exactly what happened. They used the API to adjust Spot’s gait. The API allowed the robot to have more information about its payload, assess the weight and forces on it, and allow Spot to adjust to them dynamically. After making these software adjustments, Spot successfully pulled Savage around.
“That’s excellent work, little buddy,” Savage said.
It appears Spot has a knack for pulling things. In April 2019, Boston Dynamics released a video called “Mush, Spot Mush!” that showed 10 SpotMini robots pulling a truck across the company’s parking lot. According to Boston Dynamics, the parking lot is slopped 1 degree uphill and the truck, thank goodness, was in neutral. In the video description, Boston Dynamics quips, “it only takes 10 Spotpower (SP) to haul a truck across the Boston Dynamics parking lot.”
Spot was released for commercial use in September 2019, and it is performing tasks that don’t involve towing. HoloBuilder released SpotWalk, an app that integrates HoloBuilder’s software for documenting and managing construction projects. And the quadruped is getting ready to work at Aker BP ASA, a Norwegian oil producer. Later this year, it will patrol one of the company’s oil and gas production vessels in the Norwegian Sea. The company wants to test the robot’s ability to perform inspections, detect hydrocarbon leaks, and gather data.