Robot dogs pulling a semi truck? Here's the deal

Master of viral hits, Boston Dynamics puts its own twist on a team of sled dogs.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Another week, another viral hit from Boston Dynamics. Our favorite bringers of the robot apocalypse are out with a video featuring a sled team of Spot Minis, the quadrupedal robot slated to become Boston Dynamics' first commercial product. 

Instead of a sled, the little yellow dogs were pulling a semi truck in neutral.

Boston Dynamics is well known for its humanoid Atlas and large, military-inspired hell hound Big Dog. SpotMini, by contrast, is its smallest platform, a nod to the company's commercial aspirations for the autonomous robot.


So what's the deal with Spot Mini and when can we expect it to start terrifying pets in the wild? 

The little yellow "K9" has 17 joints and weighs just 25 kg, more with an optional 5 degree-of-freedom robotic arm that extends from its head like a crane. (Yup, it can open doors.) It runs about 90 minutes on a charge and is whisper quiet -- the company's quietest robot, actually, which will be a big selling point later this year when the robot is expected to go on sale.

In addition to an IMU, it has robust sensor suite that includes stereo and depth cameras and other perception sensors that measure position and force and help with navigation and mobile manipulation.

Because Boston Dynamics comes closest to making the kinds of robots we've longed imagined, the kind featured in sci-fi flicks, the fact that it's coming to market is a big deal for industry watchers. Few firms have captured the public's attention with technology like this one.

"We've been operating for a long time working on the future," Boston Dynamics' CEO Marc Raibert said in a talk last year, "and now we're trying to make practical products."

But whether the company that makes the robots of the future will find a foothold in today's market is a huge open question. Right now, the use cases Boston Dynamics is touting for its products include security,  emergency response, parcel delivery, and entertainment.

Infrastructure inspection seems like a natural addition to the list, although I haven't heard much chatter about that as a possible use case.

Like all of Boston Dynamics' robots, SpotMini's biggest asset is its agility. (Although, as illustrated in the video, the things are also quite strong.) That agility should make the robot attractive for various entertainment use cases. Drones have been a big hit on the stage and at concerts, for example, and theme parks like Disney are some of the biggest consumers of non-industrial automation in the world.

Agility and strength also make SpotMini well-suited to disaster relief, particularly search and rescue applications. However, cost could be an issue. No price tag has been announced for SpotMini, and it's unclear if the machines will be sold or leased on an as-a-service model, but either way it's going to be expensive. Whether the robot will pass the procurement sniff test for government agencies and relief organizations remains to be seen.

Security robots haven't exactly had a stellar debut (see: Robot drowns itself in a fountain). It's a low-wage, low-skill sector, meaning there's no rush to automate, and while roving bots may do a better job sensing intruders in large commercial spaces than humans, it's tough to imagine many companies clamoring for their own robot defense forces. I don't expect to see many of these little yellow dogs guarding buildings anytime soon.

Down the road, Boston Dynamics expects its robots to be utilized in delivery applications and even in elder care. 

No word yet on when SpotMini will be available, but Boston Dynamics has pegged release to sometime in 2019. The release of this video may be a sign the dogs are ready to pull into market. 

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