Meet Spot: Boston Dynamics’s kickable robot dog

boston-dynamics-robotsThe ongoing work by Boston Dynamics, a leading engineering and robotics design company owned by Google Inc., on our future robot overlords continues apace. In a video released by the company, robots mimicking uncanny, skeletal decapitated deer (or perhaps dogs) can be seen being put through their paces navigating all manner of terrain and even, perhaps, what could be described a frolicking.

The 160-pound four-legged robot is named Spot and mixes a sort of horse-like gait with a canid form factor.

None of this is all that new out of BD’s ever-increasing robot lineage as the four-legged robots have been in design and display for some time, but the behaviors built in so distinct improvements over the time we’ve seen them demoed. For example, BD revealed BigDog, a 240-pound four-legged pack robot for possible industrial and military applications back in 2011.

Spot is a much smaller version and prominently displays a few interesting improvements.

For one, Spot appears to have a superior balancing algorithm (and can take a kick as seen in the video.) The legs are also backwards angled (more digitigrade) like a horse or dog, where Big Dog’s legs are forward bending.

In the video, Spot is shown progressing through all sorts of terrain: an office building, asphalt street, grass, even up concrete stairs, a grassy hill, and through a sparse forest. At around the 1:20 mark of the video two Spots can be seen running together, one jostling the other, yet they still both manage to make it to the top of a low hill and turn around without tipping over.

Being one of the smallest four-legged robots produced by Boston Dynamics puts it into a different niche than a pack robot like Big Dog. It’s not known what plans the company has for the robot, but it certainly could be used to run small packages, deliver communication, act as a scout with sensors/camera, or even a first responder at hazards or disasters.

Don’t kick the robot dog, please


From the video, operators can be seen giving boot to Spot, which responds by absorbing the kick or staggering sideways trying to retain balance. Certainly, it’s understandable why this is being done as part of demonstrating how the robot dog-monster is capable of staying balanced using complex algorithms and a set of gyroscopes but weirdly it also seems to trigger a sense of empathy for its uncanny behavior in viewers.

Many people who have viewed the robot kicked on social media seem to wince at seeing the robot kicked. Spot’s engineers may have delivered a very alien looking dog-thing but its reaction to being kicked is so similar to the way that an actual deer (or dog) would appear to respond to suddenly being booted that it causes a twinge of sympathy.

As it turns out, human empathy does extend to robots (or even toys) as researchers discovered in studies during 2013.

While it’s unlikely that Boston Dynamics’s Spot will be roaming the streets anytime soon, it certainly reveals possibilities for human-robot interaction.

 Image credit: Boston Dynamics “Introducing Spot” video.