State Police recently made use of a four-legged robot dubbed Spot that the agency leased from a Waltham tech company.
Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics, confirmed in a phone interview that State Police had leased Spot for free from August to earlier this month, in an effort to test its capability to respond to dangerous scenarios such as hazmat situations.
“What we’ve heard pretty consistently across a wide variety of industries” is that sending Spot into “hazardous environments could potentially be really useful to be evaluated against other exisiting technology,” Perry said.
WBUR radio first reported on the State Police contract, citing records obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts.
David Procopio, a State Police spokesman, elaborated on the agency’s use of Spot in an e-mail message.
“The Massachusetts State Police have used robots to assist in responses to hazardous situations for many years, deploying them to examine suspicious items and to clear high-risk locations where armed suspects may be present,” Procopio wrote. “As part of our continual emphasis on examining the application of new technologies to our mission, we recently completed a test program of the Boston Dynamics robot known as ‘Spot,’ which we leased for a 90-day period that ended on Nov. 5.”
As with our other robots, Procopio said, Spot “was attached to our Bomb Squad, with the capability of providing remote inspection of potentially hazardous objects and dangerous environments that might contain criminal suspects or explosive devices. The leased “Spot” was used operationally on two occasions. The platform is still in beta testing and under development by Boston Dynamics, and we were grateful for the opportunity to evaluate its capabilities as they apply to our mission.”
The Globe reported in September that for Spot, Boston Dynamics was targeting early adopters in the construction industry, as well as oil and gas producers and public safety agencies, where the robot’s sensors and cameras can be used as job-site monitors or enter locations that are unsafe for humans.
Spot is the first robot that the company has brought to market in its 27-year history.
Perry said in September that “the total cost of the early adopter program lease will be less than the price of a car — but how nice a car will depend on the number of Spots leased and how long the customer will be leasing the robot.”
Spot is a successor to a far larger four-legged machine called BigDog that the company began developing in 2009. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency solicited proposals for a machine that could walk alongside soldiers like a pack mule, carrying hundreds of pounds of gear. BigDog used a small gasoline engine as a power source, making it too noisy for covert military operations. The project was scrubbed, but Boston Dynamics learned a lot about how to make a robot walk over all kinds of terrain.
That know-how is now built into Spot, which is small enough to run on a rechargeable, removable battery pack, such as those used in power tools. Spot has a battery life of about 90 minutes. It can walk at 3 miles per hour, carry a payload of 30 pounds, is water- and dust-resistant, and uses stereo cameras to avoid running into people and obstacles.
Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 as a spinoff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has mainly subsisted on military research contracts. Search engine giant Google acquired the company in 2013, but four years later sold it to its current owner, the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.
The company is a pioneer in the development of robots that walk on legs rather than running around on wheels or caterpillar treads. Teaching a robot to walk is far more complicated, but the result is a machine that can go places other robots can’t, such as a battlefield or inside an earthquake-damaged building.
Kade Crockford, director of the technology for liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said civil liberties advocates want more information about law enforcement use of robots.
“There is a lot we do not know about how and where these robotics systems are currently deployed in Massachusetts,” Crockford said. “All too often, the deployment of these technologies happens faster than our social, political, or legal systems react. We urgently need more transparency from government agencies, who should be upfront with the public about their plans to test and deploy new technologies.”
Crockford also called for “statewide regulations to protect civil liberties, civil rights, and racial justice in the age of artificial intelligence. Massachusetts must do more to ensure safeguards keep pace with technological innovation, and the ACLU is happy to partner with officials at the local and state levels to find and implement solutions to ensure our law keeps pace with technology.”