Boston Dynamics, easily the world’s leading robotics company, is selling a robot to the public for the first time in its 28-year history. The company’s robotic quadruped, “Spot,” is now for sale on shop.bostondynamics.com, where you can take home your very own robotic dog for a cool $74,500.
If you can’t tell from the price, Spot is an industrial robot for industrial applications. Boston Dynamics’ site calls Spot “a stable, dynamically balanced quadruped robot that can navigate through unstructured, unknown, or antagonistic terrain with ease.” Spot is a platform, Boston Dynamics handles the locomotion, and it’s your job to develop programs and attach extra equipment to make Spot useful. Out of the box, the robot is basically a highly mobile camera that can go up steps, tromp through the mud, and generally handle terrain better than nearly any other robot on Earth.
We covered Spot’s development back when it was first unveiled in 2015. Back then, Spot—which has since been renamed to “Spot Classic“—was a 160-pound robodog with a pipe chassis and exposed internals. The big advancement at the time over previous Boston Dynamics quadrupeds was a design around an electric engine to drive the hydraulics system, which made it amenable to indoor use. Previous four-legged BD bots like the 330-pound Wildcat ran on a two-stroke gas engine that sounded like a chainsaw and constantly belched CO2. The Spot bots got a lot smaller with the “SpotMini” in 2016, a 55-pound robot that dumped the hydraulics system of the original Spot and went with an all-electric locomotion system. The SpotMini has since been renamed to plain old “Spot” and looks the closest to today’s commercial bot—it even has an option for plastic cladding. This latest version, with a yellow shell, has been hanging around on the YouTube channel since 2017.
The commercial version of Spot weighs 71 pounds, and its 605Wh battery gives it a 90-minute runtime. Spot is IP54 rated, so you can take it out in the rain. It has 2.4GHz Wi-Fi b, g, and n, along with wired gigabit Ethernet. Spot can handle slopes of +/- 30 degrees and sports a top speed of 1.6m/s (3.58mph). The bot can handle a payload of up to 30.9 pounds, which can be attached to two T-Slot rails on the top of the torso. The bot has a range of official accessories that can be connected via two DB25 ports and the on-board power supply.
Spot has a 360-degree field of view for navigation, thanks to stereo monochrome cameras on the front, back, and sides of the robot. “Stereo” here means the bot can assemble 3D point clouds from these cameras, but that doesn’t mean two lenses per side—there appears to be at least four cameras all four sides of the bot, and a whopping 8 cameras on the front. These cameras give the bot a 4-meter visibility range and are the entire navigation system—there’s no onboard lidar.
One way to control Spot is with the included 7-inch Android tablet that looks like a cross between a Nintendo Switch and an Xbox controller, with a full suite of gamepad controls on the left and right sides of the display. Boston Dynamics doesn’t officially say this, but I know my Android tablets, and it looks to be a JXD S192K, a device with a 1920×1200 display, a quad-core 1.8GHz Cortex A17 Rockport SoC, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a 10,000mAh battery, and (oh dear god) Android 5.1, an OS from 2014.
Spot can be directed with the two joysticks on the tablet, which work as tank-like controls where the left joystick is up/down/left/right while the right joystick controls rotation. You can also just tap on the live video feed that Spot sends to the tablet and it will walk to that point. Even with the joysticks, you’re only ever issuing high-level guidance commands to Spot: The bot will do autonomous obstacle avoidance not just for the main body, but also for each individual leg. You can’t make it walk into something unless something goes horribly wrong. You can also toss a few fiducial markers around the room (they look like QR Codes) for autonomous navigation, including recording and playing back walking directions.
And since this is a Boston Dynamics robot, it is ready to handle your abuse. The robot can stumble and keep ongoing, and it can right itself if it falls over. Previously, Spot has been seen being victimized by an evil human on Boston Dynamics’ YouTube channel. It was attacked with a hockey stick, pulled off its course with a leash, and had its back panel ripped off while it was running. Spot will keep on trucking.
For those of us without a spare 75 grand to spend on a robot dog, reading through the incredible 50-page user manual is the next-best thing, as it walks you through the care and feeding of Spot with tons of lovingly rendered images. There’s also the second YouTube Channel, “Boston Dynamics Support,” which walks you through the basics in one-minute videos. Another great resource is actually Adam Savage, the former Mythbuster, who is in the Spot early access program and is posting videos of the bot on his Tested YouTube channel.
Spot is not a toy, and the Boston Dynamics mentions several times that the robot can be dangerous. The site reads, “Spot is not certified safe for in-home use or intended for use near children or others who may not appreciate the hazards associated with its operation. Do not operate Spot in any such environment; our warranty of Spot becomes void upon any such operation.” While the robot isn’t quite “three-laws safe” yet, the company notes that “all orders will be subject to Boston Dynamics’ Terms and Conditions of Sale, which require the beneficial use of its robots.” It’s your job to not terrorize people with the robot.
One particular safety concern is the numerous pinch points in the robot’s design. The manual goes into the gory details, saying, “Fingers may break or get amputated if caught in joints while Spot’s motors are active.” To safely move Spot around, you’re supposed to press the “Motor Lockout” button on the back, which mechanically disconnects the motor power, and then lift Spot by either the feet or the included grab handles around the joints.
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Making Spot do something useful usually means attaching a payload and working with the Spot SDK, which uses Python. Besides the ability to engineer a custom payload, the commercialization of serious robots means there’s a range of ready-to-go accessories for your robodog, which are also available on shop.bostondynamics.com for eye-popping prices. There’s the Spot Cam, a 360-degree color camera (the built-in cameras are all black-and-white) for $21,800. The Spot Cam+ instead attaches a controllable pan-tilt-zoom camera with a 30x optical zoom, microphones, and speakers for $29,750. If you want serious 3D vision with some lidar, the Spot EAP (Enhanced Autonomy Package) will add a Velodyne VLP-16 lidar puck to the top, along with a “Spot Core” compute package for $18,450.
There are two options for more computing power in the form of extra computers that sit on the top T-slot rails. The Spot Core features an eighth-gen Intel Core i5, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SDD preloaded with Ubuntu for $3,925. For even more beef, there’s a Spot Core AI package, which is an Intel Xeon E3-1515M V5 CPU, 32GB of RAM, a 480GB SSD, and an Nvidia Quatro P5000 GPU for $24,500. There’s even a Spot Care premium service plan, which will give you “expedited repair services and VIP support” for $15,000 per year, for up to three years.
The best accessory is mentioned on the website but isn’t on the store yet: the “Spot Arm,” a six degree-of-freedom robot arm that can lift 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds). The arm is coming “early 2021.”
Thanks to the range of payloads, Boston Dynamics has a whole list of useful things you could make Spot do: remote inspection and gauge reading with the camera, thermal inspection and gas and radiation detection with special sensors, and tunnel inspection in a blast site. You can even mount a display to the top and use it for telepresence, though I’m not sure I would want to telecommute to somewhere as a dog. The arm will enable even more abilities. Previously, Boston Dynamics has programmed early versions of Spot to fetch a soda and clumsily load a dishwasher.
Previously, Boston Dynamics survived on US military contracts; it got funding from DARPA to develop robotic pack mules BigDog and AlphaDog, along with Petman, a bipedal, sweating robot (that’s right, the robot perspired) for testing chemical-defense clothing. Boston Dynamics was bought by Google in 2013 in the hopes of building a robotic division, but Google lost interest in robotics after Andy Rubin left (due to a sexual harassment scandal) and when it saw how long commercialization would take. Boston Dynamics was sold to SoftBank in 2017.
Under SoftBank, real, live commercial sales are finally happening, and Boston Dynamics can start to stand on its own. In addition to Spot, the company sells the “Pick” vision system for pallet robots, which can help your robot arm sort through stacks of mixed-SKU boxes. Warehouses seem to be a big focus for the future of Boston Dynamics—it’s developing the ostrich-like “Handle” robot with an eye toward moving boxes around and unloading trucks. Humanoid research continues with the Atlas robot, which is now more agile than many humans since it’s able to do backflips and tumble routines. All other projects live under the “legacy robots” section of Boston Dynamics’ website, which presumably means they are no longer in active development.
A $1,000 deposit is due at checkout, and the bot ships in 6-8 weeks. In the box, you get Spot, the tablet/controller, two batteries, a charger, and cases for the robot and accessories. The good news is that shipping is free, albeit for a “limited time only.”