Robots: Give a dog a door...

27 February 2018

Interview with

Peter Cowley, Angel Investor

A team of engineers at Boston Dynamics, in the US, released a video of their robot dog, SpotMini. But this isn’t a toy: this is an intelligent robot that can open doors and isn’t phased by human interference. Izzie Clarke asked Angel Investor, Peter Cowley, what do Boston Dynamics do and how much do we know about SpotMini?

Peter - Boston Dynamics was formed about 25 years ago and was privately owned until it was bought by Google about five years ago and then sold to a Japanese VC firm. SpotMini is probably the seventh or eighth that’s been designed and built and put into the public domain, so we know about it. There may be lots going on in their labs.

What it is a four legged thing that looks a bit like a 2ft high dog. It’s got an arm on it and the arm can have various contraptions on it. It’s about 80cms high, weighs about 30 kilos. It’s fully electric; some of the earlier ones had little diesel engines onboard so it was quite noisy. It has 3D vision; it can carry about 14 kilos and it’s got 17 joints and that should be compared with the 360 odd joints in the human body, so it will run for about 90 minutes.

In this particular video that’s online in various places the first bit shows this SpotMini being attacked, unfortunately, by a human with a hockey stick that’s trying to stop it opening a door. Eventually the human pulls this thing back with some lead in the back and pulls it away from the door. Finally the human moves away and so it moves towards the door, and then it finds the handle and then rotates the handle. Then it puts a foot round and opens the door which is obviously quite strongly spring loaded, so it’s pretty impressive.

Izzie - Yes. So even with all this interference it keeps going and it opens this door. I’ve seen the video and this robot dog is pretty robust. How does it work and how is it able to stay so focussed on this task?

Peter - There’s speculation online and it’s not clear from the video and they've obviously being quite coy about it because it’s commercially secret. There may well be, and probably is, somebody off camera that’s controlling its movements backwards and forwards. However, the actual opening of the door is probably not possible to do by the human, so it’s probably either been taught or, rather spookily, has learned to open the door. Particularly impressive is that it balances - moves around.

Izzie - Because that must be something quite difficult to do, this idea of balance in general, but why make these types of robots in the first place?

Peter - Robots have come a long way since the word was invented in the early 20s. It’s a Czech word robota apparently, but they became in low mass production in the 60s. I was involved in robots in the 80s but these were stationary. The things you see on the television where they’re doing something on a car production line where they’re painting or tightening a bolt or putting a windscreen in.

Move on forward to the ones that are non-stationary. In fact, autonomous vehicles are robots. They’re on a road and it’s quite easy to move around. What Boston Dynamics has done is produce what look like animals and humans which can cope with unusual terrains and that is really different. There’s a great video of a two legged one walking through a slippery snowy forest, slipping around the place and picking itself up. The reason behind this to understand what it’s like to cope with non-standard surfaces really and then, of course, also indoors.

Izzie - So these can cover a lot of different terrains but what is the future of these robots?

Peter - That’s interesting. hat’s an interesting question because the speciality of these robots, assuming one takes it beyond just being a science experiment and actually gets into volume, manufacturers, is for situations where one needs the device, as we said, to cover terrains which are non-flat - indoors or on roads, etc.  Therefore it’s in a situation where, probably, a human being is with the robot or the robot is replacing the human being. Clearly, in that situation, military comes up doesn’t it? And there are some pretty worrying numbers out there on the internet that a good proportion of, say, the American armed forces will be robots in time. There's all kinds of science fiction connotations there etc.

There will be occasions where, say one is decommissioning a nuclear plant or something where a robot of this form that’s having to walk through some sort of environment which is radioactive or difficult, you could use it in that situation. There’ll definitely be occasions where robots need to cover ground which is not easy to do just with wheels. So yeah, the applications will be huge but, at the moment, I’m not quite sure what they are.

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