I can die a happy robotics journalist. Last week, Senior Editor Eugene Demaitre and I tele-operated Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot from 3,000-plus miles away. We took Spot for a walk around Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, controlling it from our homes near Boston.
Spot is beyond impressive. It does all the hard work, such as walking up and down stairs and handling different terrain. All we did was point the Spot robot in the proper direction. I controlled Spot with a PS3 controller plugged into my laptop, while Eugene used his laptop’s touchpad.
The opportunity to tele-operate Spot is a program from Formant, a San Francisco-based startup that builds software to monitor and control robot fleets. The program showcases Formant’s software, of course, but the company, founded by a team of former Google, Savioke, and Redwood Robotics software engineers, roboticists, and product managers, also wants to help familiarize the general public with robots. Formant also works with companies building drones, underwater robots, mobile robots and more.
If you want to take Spot for a walk, Formant is taking applications on its website. And you don’t need a gaming controller; all you need is a computer and reliable Internet connection. You can walk Spot around Golden Gate Park, downtown San Francisco, or a local beach or forest trail.
Neither Eugene or I crashed Spot, although I did drive it into the brush a tad once. Can I blame that on my old crummy remote? At one point, the Formant team tried to get me to walk Spot down a steep muddy hill. Even they were somewhat unsure about how the robot would handle the terrain, so I ultimately decided against potentially putting a $74,500 machine into harm’s way.
Formant said walking in tall grass and foliage can still throw the robots for a loop. “The new adage would be, if the robot apocalypse happens, run into a field of tall grass,” Formant joked.
We walked Spot for about an hour, taking a couple of minutes to switch out the battery once. I used the right stick on my controller to move Spot forward or backward. The further you push the stick in a direction, the faster Spot moves. The left stick moves Spot in a sideways direction, and came in handy when it was in the shrubs.
Eugene had the opportunity to walk Spot up and down stairs. He simply put Spot into position in front of the stairs, switched Spot into “stairs mode,” and the robot flawlessly did the rest. From an engineering standpoint, Formant founder and CEO Jeff Linnell said this is “an 11 out of 10.”
“That is testament to 20 years of development. [Boston Dynamics] is the one company on Earth that really got that right and had the nerve to do it.” said Linnell. “[The reason] I’m not afraid to walk it up stairs is that [Boston Dynamics] is all about trying to break the machine, so they can make it better. They’ve spent 20 years doing that, and this is the result of it, and every other robotics company is going to benefit.”
“I think it’s going to be the kind of thing we take for granted moving forward, because they just proved that this type of mobility is finally possible,” he said. “And it’s super, super, super exciting. And it’s still amazing to me when I see it in person, or when I pilot it up a set of steps, that it actually worked.”
Of course, we had many interesting encounters during the walk, including a game of chicken with a kid, several folks who were familiar with Boston Dynamics, and two dogs. I switched Spot to “pose” mode when we encountered the second dog, using both sticks on the PS3 controller to make Spot dance.
“People love [Spot],” said Linnell. “San Franciscans are used to self-driving cars and maybe robots here and there. I think there’s still something novel about seeing a walking robot dog come at you in a park. It’s still not normal, but I think this is the last year that we’re going to be able to say that.”
The peripheral vision wasn’t great, so it was tough to get a sense of what was on either side of Spot. Perhaps that was because we were first-time operators. But that can also be easily corrected by making another camera view available.
Using Formant’s software, Spot is collecting a ton of data as it moves, but the interface for Eugene and me was quite clean. The main view is a forward-looking perspective from one of Spot’s cameras, but we also had a GPS view and a wide-angle view captured by a Formant employee who acted as Spot’s handler just in case something went wrong.
At the bottom of our screens, we could also see metrics such as battery life, memory, ping rate and what mode Spot was in. Formant can customize these metrics to your liking, as robotics engineers might want to see different metrics.
“What to do you wanna do with [Spot]?” Linnell said. “I think that’s the real question. You’ve got a really incredible mobility platform; now you can start dreaming up applications. Some of them are obvious, like inspection, but some of them we haven’t even dared to dream of yet. As you know, this level of mobility was not accessible to industry. Now the challenge is [figuring out] how you want to apply it.”
Quadruped robots have come along way recently. Boston Dynamics commercializing Spot is a milestone for the technology. Linnell headed various robotics initiatives at Google for two-plus years, so we had to also get his thoughts on bipedal robots, which are playing catch-up to their four-legged friends.
“I’m a pragmatist, and questioned quadrupeds until we had one. Now that we have a quadruped, I think this is a really good way to navigate tough terrain,” he said. “With bipedal robots, I’m still at the point of, ‘Well, is this a problem that really exists? Do we really need walking robots? Can’t we just use a quadruped for that?’ Perhaps narrow environments can use bipedal robots, but it just feels relatively complex.”
Editor’s Note: Senior Editor Eugene Demaitre contributed to this article.