Robotics — Boston Dynamics’s industrial applications
Capable of climbing stairs and crossing rough terrain, the machine has also dazzled — and disturbed — thanks to widely publicised door-opening and collaborative abilities.
Following in the whirring footsteps of pioneering quadrupeds Big Dog and LS3, the Spot robot from Boston Dynamics is wrapped in a bubble of internet hype.
The robot’s control is actually more semi-autonomous than autonomous, and humans are working behind the scenes of its most impressive manoeuvres. But, beyond the hype, the Spot is nonetheless hugely promising. It is a compact, rugged and customisable package, and it is now available for serious industrial applications — albeit in an experimental way — after Boston announced a leasing programme. It could prove useful in several engineering sectors.
Off the leash
The Spot’s capabilities fall mainly into two categories — sensing and manipulation. Both of these could be particularly useful in the construction or energy sectors, Boston suggested. The robot could use its cameras or other sensors to remotely inspect oil and gas facilities, sharing data about plant operations. On building sites, its developers say it could help piece together digital twins and compare real-life results to Building Information Modelling files.
The robot will be especially useful in dangerous environments that are unsuitable for humans, such as disaster areas or irradiated legacy nuclear facilities, said independent expert David Bisset. The Spot’s 90-minute battery life is “not fantastic,” claimed the executive director of the European Robotics Association, but the new lease programme will offer lots of opportunities to explore what it can do.
The machine’s modularity is “extremely useful,” he said. Along with the robot’s in-built cameras, it can also have up to four hardware modules installed on its back. According to The Verge, Boston is already putting lidar sensors from Velodyne on Spots for indoor mapping.
There is a modern need for platforms that are adaptable across a range of areas, said Bisset. “It is really trying to be the general-purpose truck onto which you put your characteristic load. Whether that is sensing or something else, that’s up to you.”
The Spot’s modularity, along with its stability and adaptability, mean it could secure footholds across engineering. “I think it’s robust enough, and I think it will develop further. They are an extraordinary company, the things they develop are stunning,” said Professor Noel Sharkey, robotics expert at the University of Sheffield.
If experimental industrial applications are fruitful the Spot could inspire other companies to build cheaper copycat versions, said Sharkey. Big names such as Amazon could even get involved in future, he added.
Boston Dynamics is also likely to attempt to boost the machine’s range and maximum payload, making it even more appealing to industrial customers. Spot’s internet hype could transform into a much more concrete success story in years to come.
Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Industrial Engineers.