At first, SpotMini may seem a strange for a dog. The two googly-eyes on SpotMini's extruding mechanical head do not readily convince. SpotMini's perceived neck doubles as an arm, which may be difficult for most to imagine. SpotMini weighs 65 pounds, is slightly over 21/2 feet tall, and can go 90 minutes without a recharge. Where SpotMini is most impressive however, is in its nimbleness, ability to handle objects, climb stairs, and operate in enclosures like offices and homes.
In a particularly fun 2017 TED Talk, Marc Raibert of Boston Dynamics introduces SpotMini to the audience. SpotMini struts around the stage, jumps up and down, and walks sideways and backwards. SpotMini has a set of sensors that allow it to develop a real-time terrain-map of the world around it. Think of it as an elevation-map coated in green and red; the green indicates areas that SpotMini can traverse, and the red signifies areas it should avoid. As Dr. Raibert explains, "… the computer is one side, making suggestions to the robot, and on the other side are the physics of the world."
By physics of the world, he means challenging environmental interactions such as gravity and friction. Only when software, hardware, and robot behavior act in harmony is the robot successful. It is a tricky act to perform, albeit one Boston Dynamics accomplishes deftly.
SpotMini is just one of several robots produced at Boston Dynamics, a cutting-edge engineering and robotics company well-known for developing BigDog. BigDog is a government-funded quadrupedal robot to help soldiers carry heavy packs up to 340 pounds in terrain too rough for vehicles.
Though BigDog was ultimately too loud for the combat-environment, it did inspire the creation of several other animal-themed automata including Cheetah, SandFlea, and LittleDog. Not to be limited to the realm of critters, Boston Dynamics also develops humanoid robots like PETMAN (Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin) and Atlas.
PETMAN was constructed to test chemical protection suits, and can balance and walk much like an actual human. Atlas, one of Boston Dynamics more recent projects, is an advanced version of PETMAN designed for search and rescue. Atlas can pick itself up when fallen, advance across uneven terrain with some speed, and balance on one leg. Boston Dynamics regularly publishes videos of each of its robots in action on YouTube. Seeing is believing, but even then, the ability of today's machines may surprise you.
Is SpotMini's remarkable functionality a sign of impending doom for humanity? Depending on your level of paranoia, perhaps. But SpotMini can fetch you a beer. Robot or otherwise, that's sure to help dogs retain the title of "man's best friend" well into the future.
Mahdi Al-Husseini is the volunteer organizer of TEDxDouglasville, a senior at Georgia Tech studying biomedical engineering and public policy, a U.S. Army cadet.