We test-drove a Boston Dynamics robot dog

Test-driving Boston Dynamics's Robot Dog from 1,700 miles away
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· 5 min read

Before you could buy one, Boston Dynamics’s quadruped robo-doges spent years performing cinematographic waltzes andhauling heavy things around. Then, in June 2020, Spot finally went on sale with a starting price tag of $74,500.

We’ve wanted to try Spot out but didn’t have $75k in the R&D budget. So we phoned a friend: Formant. The San Francisco-based startup sells robot command centers as a service. “Kind of like Tony Stark view for robots,” Formant CEO Jeff Linnell told us, that lets customers remotely operate and monitor their fleet, run analytics on a massive firehose of data, and audit errors as or after they occur.

We put Formant’s Spot to the test from Texas. In other words, Ryan remotely operated a Spot in the Bay Area using an Xbox controller, MacBook Pro, and Formant dashboard within his Google Chrome browser. Over the course of a half hour, we put Spot through the ringer.

Test #1

In “Play with Spot,” we controlled the robot with a leash. Viewable through a third-party cinematic camera on a dolly, this mode showed off Spot’s range of motion. We couldn’t actually walk Spot, but we could move it from side to side, tilt its head forward, or make it do a downward dog.

  • This mode showed how the robot moves based on keyboard/joystick commands, and what the latency is like between a controller in the cloud and the actual, IRL robot (in two words—not bad).

Test #2

We navigated an untethered Spot around Formant’s shop in first-person, fish-eye lens view. This was the actual “test drive,” and where we could demo Spot’s intelligent sensing and obstacle avoidance features. For example, when we tried to beeline Spot toward a row of Vespa scooters and knock them over, it didn’t work.

Spot can navigate tight spaces. Even if you’re not a joystick wizard, the robot won’t hit its surroundings. If you go full throttle ahead, Spot will make its way through a tight environment and then stop before colliding with anything.

  • “It’s the only robot I can buy that I could walk down a city street...or through a forest,” Linnell said. “And I’m not spending 90% of my day picking up a robot and helping it over a curb.”

To give you a sense of how much data robots produce: “Spot has about 200 channels of information that we’re pulling off of him multiple times a second,” Linnell said.

Worth noting: With robotic coworkers, you have 99 problems and networking is always one. You need a fat bandwidth pipe for two-way robotic operation/communication. When Formant takes Spot out on SF streets, “block by block, mile by mile, the video gets worse.” As they get farther from home base, the team will throttle video quality.

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  • Once connectivity drops to a certain level, Formant sends the “Sit” order to Spot and the bot powers down. The video resolution and connectivity worked very well in our test, but we didn’t leave the company’s warehouse.

Linnell says there are two workarounds to the connectivity issue. One, you can build a private network on poorly covered sites like farms or construction sites. Two, you can save data locally and only sporadically transmit it at a certain threshold (say, when the battery hits 10%).

Who are Spot’s biggest buyers?

From drones to robotic grape-pickers to underwater, uncrewed vessels to hospital droids, Formant has tons of visibility into deployments of all manner of robots. As for Spot, Linnell highlighted heavy-duty industries as power users.

Last June, when Boston Dynamics made Spot commercially available, VP of Business Development Michael Perry anticipated this in an interview with me. Now, the company tells the Brew there are roughly 500 Spots now out in the wild.

  • Of the four customer examples they gave us, all were in the energy/utility/oil/gas space. BP, for example, is using Spot on an offshore oil rig.

Spot has not evaded controversy in its young life as a commercial product. The New York City Police Department owned one, nicknamed Digidog. When officers recently deployed Digidog to a hostage situation in the Bronx and public housing in Manhattan, the anti-surveillance backlash was (predictably) swift and severe. Shortly thereafter, the NYPD fired Spot.

Big picture

Spot graduated from the R&D department of Boston Dynamics to (primarily) the same place in Fortune 500 companies, universities, and governments. Like Formant, most customers use Spot for research purposes, Linnell says. The modular robot can fit sensors and other payloads on its back. And, as we experienced firsthand, a lot of AI smarts have gone into Spot’s navigation and perception capabilities.

Finally, nothing commands the internet’s attention and free media quite like a Boston Dynamics robot. Beyond being a capable mobility platform or robotic test tool, Spot is also a marketing vehicle. Formant recently gave ~5,000 global netizens the chance to try Spot in the Test #1 format. The exercise also showed that you don’t need a robotics PhD to control Spot. From Texas to Ukraine, normies on the internet can—and have—operated the robo-doge without total chaos.

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