Last September, after debuting several years prior, Boston Dynamics’ impressively agile robotic dog Spot was made available to a select number of companies as an experiment to see how the robot would perform outside of the company’s R&D labs. A year later, Spot is now officially available for sale, although not everyone can buy one just yet.
Over 150 Spots were made available to various companies and research facilities last fall as part of Boston Dynamics’ Early Adopter Program, but only for a limited time as a way for the company to assess the type of real-world applications other organisations would use it for, and to get feedback on where the bot could be improved. These included upgrading Spot with cameras so that it could capture almost 5,000 photos every week documenting the progress of a large construction project in Quebec, Canada, replacing humans for dangerous inspection tasks at AkerBP’s petroleum production facilities in Norway, and helping the NASA JPL Team CoSTAR win a recent DARPA Subterranean Challenge Competition.
Even Adam Savage got his hands on a Spot, using it to pull him around San Francisco adapted for more domestic uses around the home.
However, for the next phase of Spot’s rollout, Boston Dynamics still isn’t ready to make the robot available to everyone. Spot will instead only be available for purchase for “commercial and industrial use” in the United States, although the Early Adopter Program will continue to run in international markets. The company also emphasises that orders will be “subject to Boston Dynamics’ Terms and Conditions of Sale which require the beneficial use of its robots.” As Boston Dynamics’ Field Applications Lead, Seth Davis, clarified, that clause in the user agreement “prohibits the use of robots from harming people, or simulating harming people.”
In other words, while we’ve postulated the potential terrifying uses of many of the robots Boston Dynamic has revealed over the years, the company’s EULA specifically requires its customers to apply the robots to tasks that benefit humanity, or demonstrate the robot’s ability and potential for handling jobs and tasks that traditionally have put humans in harm’s way.
As with many technologies we now rely on (like the internet and GPS) the military was one of the earliest driving forces behind robotics innovations. It will still be many years before they march into battle brandishing rifles, but for decades robots have been used as safer way to inspect and dispose of bombs, land mines, and other incendiary devices while human operators maintained a safe distance. Even one of Spot’s predecessors, the LS3 (Legged Squad Support System), which was designed to carry cargo across rugged terrain difficult for wheeled vehicles to traverse, was bolstered with a $US10 ($15) million investment from the Pentagon back in 2013. There’s zero doubt that robots will continue to play an expanded role in the military moving forward, but Boston Dynamics doesn’t seem like it’s comfortable being the real-life equivalent of Hollywood’s Cyberdyne Systems, which was responsible for building the Terminators.
It is a little disappointing that Spot isn’t being made available to the general public just yet, because as just a simple companion, it runs circles around other consumer-friendly robot dogs like Sony’s Aibo. But Boston Dynamics also isn’t ready to declare Spot ‘consumer friendly’ just yet either. By classifying it as an industrial tool, there’s an understanding that the robot still poses some potential risk to humans, even as capable as it is at autonomously avoiding them. It will still be a few more years of development and refinement for Spot to be considered a house-friendly robot, but finally getting it into the hands of real companies should help accelerate that.
There’s also the issue of price. If you thought $US2,900 ($4,218) for Sony’s Aibo was expensive…well, the Spot Explorer development kit being released today will set you back $US74,500 ($108,368). Though special educational and enterprise pricing (if you’re buying more than one) will also be available. Not exactly an impulse purchase, but as a company, if it means you can make an employee’s job safer, that’s potentially a bargain.