Boston Dynamics is a robotics innovation company that has been best known for “converting capital into viral YouTube videos.” Their first sensation was over a decade ago, when they released the legendary breakthrough “Big Dog” robot video.
What was unique about the robot dog was its ability to traverse a diverse array of terrain. Additionally, as can be seen in the video, it even handled sudden impacts well. Boston Dynamics continued to develop these multi-terrain walkers, coming up with a more humanoid design with “Pet Man.”
While Boston Dynamics’ robots have long been an area of research and development, they have recently been put to work. The current incarnation, known as “Spot,” is currently being outfitted for doing what it does best — walking rugged terrain.
IBM and Boston Dynamics are currently outfitting Spot for a job with National Grid to monitor infrastructure. The ability to traverse a variety of environments allows for automated inspection of equipment in the field. It’s easy to imagine robots like this monitoring a large fraction of our infrastructure in the future, which should lower the cost of infrastructure maintenance significantly.
Of course, the fear that everyone had is also coming true. While Boston Dynamics itself has a strict policy of not weaponizing robots, other manufacturers are taking the basic design and running with it for building reconnaissance machines and semi-autonomous weapons. The reconnaissance missions described by the US Air Force actually sound a lot like the “bird alarm” from the Pixar film The Incredibles.
Essentially, the robot will walk around the base on predefined or remotely controlled paths. It can then be used to detect and remotely relay voice instructions to trespassing individuals. It allows them to keep situational awareness on their base with a minimum of manpower.
One application I haven’t seen yet, though, is a robotic personal carrier. Since the dogs are able to cross any terrain, it seems like we could use them to travel to locations without roads. Perhaps, if the technology keeps up, in the future we won’t even need roads but will instead ride on animal-inspired robots across any path we wish.