Boston Dynamics is preparing to build its terrifying army of robot dogs, according to a Saturday report in Inverse that the company has set a target date of July 2019 as the time it will be ready to manufacture 1,000 of its compact SpotMini models annually.
SpotMini is the smallest variant of Boston Dynamics’ many different models of robo-dogs yet at approximately two feet, nine inches tall. It weighs “around 66 pounds” and has an hour and a half battery life, per TechCrunch, and the company has recently demonstrated all kinds of functionalities like opening doors for other robots and increasingly complicated navigational skills. While the company already announced plans to launch commercially in 2019 with a limited run of robots already in pre-production, Inverse’s report has some new details, such as that the SpotMini is intended to eventually become a multi-use platform of sorts:
The overarching goal for the 26-year-old company is to become the what Android operating system is for phones: a versatile foundation for limitless applications. That’s the plan, anyway.
.... Speaking last month at the CeBIT computer expo Hannover, Germany, [founder Marc Raibert] said Boston Dynamics is already testing SpotMini with potential clients in four categories: construction, delivery, security, and home assistance.
... “We’ve built ten by hand, we’re building 100 with manufacturers at the end of this year, and at the end of 2019, we’re going to begin production at the rate of about 1,000 a year,” he said of SpotMini, a prototype of which sat the stage at his feet.
The attachment point where the SpotMini’s robotic arm stems from its body could in the future hold a variety of attachments “to be designed and produced by third parties,” per Fortune, making it more versatile. For example, instead of a claw the arm could terminate in a power tool or a camera.
However, as Inverse noted, the company has endured criticism as a “tech industry curio”—particularly around the time Google put it on the open market in 2016 before its eventual sale to Softbank Robotics in 2017. That’s included claims its numerous viral videos show teleoperation rather than machine learning, that the technology to make the robots useful simply isn’t available yet, or that the odds are long of making them commercially cost-effective. (In 2015, the US military declined to buy a prior model called the BigDog designed to carry ammunition or evacuate wounded troops, saying it was noisy enough to give away a unit’s location.) SpotMini is likely to run in the tens of thousands of dollars at a minimum, limiting their availability.
One possible use for the robots is home delivery, where the robots would at least in theory face fewer regulatory hurdles than plans by Amazon and UPS to deliver packages by unmanned aerial vehicle. But that approach creates its own problems, including that it would have to be cheaper than overworked humans, be capable of navigating obstacles that aren’t static like pedestrians, dogs, and traffic intersections, and perhaps prepared for the possibility somebody could try to wrestle the package away from the robot. Construction sites would perhaps be even harder to deploy a SpotMini in safely for human or bot, given that the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration ranks construction as one of the most dangerous industries.
Security seems like one of the more plausible uses for the SpotMini, given that all it really needs to do is walk around, record things, and maybe detect and report anything weird going on. At a Softbank World presentation in Tokyo in 2017, Raibert showed off a model equipped with a camera.
Inverse also theorised that the SpotMini or its possible successors could find use in elder care, which tends to be so expensive that robots could be cost-effective:
Because Spot Mini is just under three feet tall, it’s objectively less-scary and might even appear cute if it were to take care of your ageing grandmother — fetching drinks and medicine and opening doors for her.
However, the Japanese robots in question tend to be simpler assistive devices like machines that help lift the elderly out of bed or smart mobility aids that automatically detect and compensate for inclines. And while SpotMini might look cute fetching food or medicines, it had better not pick the wrong ones, and be capable of doing so even if a random thing falls over in front of a door.
In any case, Boston Dynamics’ robot army may start rolling off production lines soon, whether or not it has anything more useful to do than serve as status symbols for the ultra-wealthy, navigate hallways, or maybe do backflips like its ATLAS cousin.
Gizmodo has reached out to Boston Dynamics for comment, and we’ll update this story if we hear back. [Inverse]