IBM and Boston Dynamics partner for National Grid project involving robot dog

The controversial robot dog Spot will now be conducting regular autonomous inspections at National Grid sites with the help of IBM tech.

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Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics, IBM and National Grid have announced a new partnership that will see the company's popular -- but controversial -- robot dogs used for regular autonomous inspections at National Grid sites.

The Boston Dynamics robot, which they named "Spot," will now be integrated with AI and hybrid cloud innovations from IBM Research. The new and improved robot will then work with electric and gas utility National Grid to conduct inspections on sites in Massachusetts and New York.

The project with National Grid will see Spot provide "data analysis at the edge" that IBM believes will "improve worker safety, optimize field operations, and boost maintenance productivity in environments like manufacturing facilities, power plants, warehouses and more."

Boston Dynamics has previously faced backlash for selling "Spot" to at least four police departments, including the NYPD. 

The NYPD ended up cancelling their $94,000 contract with Boston Dynamics in April after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and other local leaders bashed the police department for using the robot dog for surveillance at a public housing building. 

But in an interview with The New York Times, Boston Dynamics executive Michael Perry said most of the 500 robotic dogs were being used on construction sites or with utility companies like National Grid. 

This week, IBM and Boston Dynamics said there was increasing demand for AI-driven robotics that could help in manufacturing and warehouse settings. A study from IBM showed that more than half of manufacturers are already implementing some kind of AI-backed robot to make autonomous decisions. 

The two companies explained that they were "transforming Spot into an intelligent roaming edge device, designing it to give operations staff greater flexibility to inspect and monitor their equipment with dynamic sensing."

"IBM and Boston Dynamics established a partnership at the beginning of this year to explore how AI, analytics and edge computing technologies could increase the utility of mobile robots used in industrial environments of asset-intensive enterprises," Skip Snyder, global intelligent connected operations leader at IBM, told ZDNet. 

"Because Spot was developed to be an agile robot, capable of navigating terrain with sensory-based mobility, there are a wide variety of uses for businesses around the world. Particularly for those in manufacturing or warehouse settings, these new innovations are designed to increase the safety and productivity of employees while improving operational resilience across the enterprise."

With IBM's help, Spot is now able to process the data it collects during National Grid inspections that allows teams to respond to issues faster. 

The three companies are working together to field test a near real-time inferencing capability that incorporates thermovisual analysis from inspection data collected by the robot, according to a blog post from the companies. 

"Ultimately, that analysis should help identify hotspots and other problems with station components that, if not corrected, could cause serious equipment failures and power outages. National Grid aims to use edge data processing to detect issues immediately, automatically notifying maintenance staff even before the robot completes its round," the companies explained.

National Grid said it is already using mobile robots in coordination with human operators to gather data about the equipment. IBM's analytics tools allow the robot to process the data that is collected through "dashboards and integration with an enterprise asset management system."

The companies are hoping this effort kicks off a new era of capabilities for Spot including the ability to "generate an automated work order or send an alert to initiate corrective actions."

Snyder told ZDNet that IBM and Boston Dynamics are working with companies to deploy a customizable set of sensors via Spot to a location, giving enterprises a set of analysis that provides actionable insight into asset and equipment health so users can proactively monitor and take action on issues. 

"Spot can be sent in to do jobs that may be dangerous, repetitive or in remote or inhospitable environments, and when paired with an edge device enabled with AI, the mobile robot enables enterprises to seek out new sources of data and gain deeper insights into their operations," Snyder said. 

"Spot is activated with different types of IoT sensors connected to AI running on the edge of the network, which enables the mobile robot to collect a rich set of sensory data  and analyze it while navigating a location site to help operators and technicians perform their operations faster, safer and more securely."

When asked whether IBM's partnership with Boston Dynamics on the Spot project would involve any police department-related projects, Snyder said the effort is focused on industrial operations. 

The partnership will involve the IBM Maximo Application Suite, IBM's AI analytics, their hybrid cloud capability and IBM Consulting.