Serving as a robotic security guard might feel like a dystopic use of the amazing technology powering Boston Dynamics’ Spot, but the robotic dog is actually well suited to protecting a historically significant area like Pompeii, whose crumbling ruins still pose a safety hazard, especially when it comes to protecting what’s left of the city from relic hunters.
Although the remains of Pompeii, an ancient Italian city of roughly 20,000 people that was buried under ash and pumice during the Mount Vesuvius eruption in AD 79, have been undergoing excavations as far back as 1592, they were halted in 1960 after major projects left the remains of the site in decay. Further excavations were limited to smaller areas at a time, but as recently as 2018 there have been new discoveries made in Pompeii, which unfortunately also means there are new opportunities for relic hunters to search for illegal treasures.
The remains of Pompeii aren’t small — they cover roughly 400,000 square meters. That includes structures above ground and those underground as well, even those dug by thieves trying to covertly access areas of the ruins not yet excavated by archaeologists. Those tunnels aren’t dug with safety in mind because a safety risk rarely stops those in search of treasure.
To assist in keeping the ruins of Pompeii safe, Boston Robotics’ Spot has been tested as an autonomous tool for monitoring and patrolling the city, even at night. The robot’s use of four articulated legs to get around makes it adept at navigating the uneven terrain of the ruins, and its size means it can even travel through subterranean areas where the risk of structures further crumbling limits human access, or through recently dug tunnels that lead to trespassers who will do anything not to get caught.
But the cameras and sensors that Spot relies on are not only good for spotting intruders. As the robot makes its way around the city’s ruins on daily patrols, it will also be capturing 3D data of the structures that remain in Pompeii. This data can be used by archaeologists studying the city to better keep tabs on the condition of its remains. Even if an archaeologist is visiting the site day after day as part of research or a new excavation, they might not notice subtle shifts in walls or other structures that over time might be at risk of crumbling altogether.
The sensors and scanning hardware that Spot uses to see and navigate the world can create highly accurate 3D recreations of Pompeii that can be studied and analysed without actually being anywhere near the city. The data Spot collects not only creates a safer way for archaeologists to study Pompeii, but it also opens up the research to archaeologists on the other side of the world that might have insights to offer but can’t actually be at the site in person.
There’s also the fact that we’ve reached the point in human civilisation where we can task autonomous robots to guard a historical site with the remains of people that lived over 2,000 years ago: one of our most tangible connections to humanity’s past.