The Creepy Robot Dog Botched a Test Run With a Bomb Squad

Emails reveal how Boston Dynamics’ Spot fell down on the job during a trial with the Massachusetts State Police.

Photo: SOPA Images/Getty Images

Spot, Boston Dynamics’ robot dog, is still trying to work out some kinks, according to emails and reports reviewed by OneZero.

The documents, which were obtained through a public records request, outline the agreement between Boston Dynamics and the Massachusetts State Police’s bomb squad, which borrowed Spot for a 90-day trial that ran between August and November 2019. The lease contract was previously reported by local public radio station WBUR.

But OneZero also obtained 28 pages of emails in which the police and the company discuss Spot’s performance during a threat, as well as the robot’s difficulties walking on stairs and hills without experiencing technical issues or toppling over.

When they turned Spot on, the robot went into “sit” mode, and they couldn’t get it to walk toward the target.

The messages detail Spot’s performance in at least one bomb investigation with the state troopers.

On August 26, 2019, a call came in from a Walmart in Westboro, Massachusetts. Multiple employees reported being alarmed by a man who exited the store carrying an “old brown briefcase.” The man then placed the briefcase atop a trash can in the store parking lot and left, which gave the employees an “uneasy feeling.”

The bomb squad brought Spot along to investigate. When they arrived at the scene, a police technician powered Spot up, hoping to have it walk toward the briefcase and assess the danger. According to a report the police provided to Boston Dynamics, when they turned Spot on, the robot went into “sit” mode, and they couldn’t get it to walk toward the target. After rebooting Spot, they tried again, but again the robot went into sit mode.

The bomb squad was eventually able to get Spot to walk over to the briefcase and take video. They reported that the video quality wasn’t very good. They said the video capabilities “did not allow for any detailed or super accurate examination of the item or the surrounding areas.” The officers eventually decided to send in a bomb technician to remove the briefcase from the trash can. Fortunately, it turned out there was no bomb inside.

Photos: Massachusetts State Police

The police determined in their report that Spot accomplished its goal to “go down range, survey the surrounding area for additional threats, confirm observations, gather additional info.”

“The initial hiccups aside and with obvious room for improvement, we accomplished the above stated goal and assisted the tech in clearing a suspect item. A GOOD first mission!!,” the police wrote in their report.

During Spot’s trial, the state troopers also ran several tests with the robotic canine and reported back to the company on Spot’s successes and failures. The police reported that during one of the tests, Spot experienced “front legs panic” and then toppled over. During another experiment, Spot paced in place when it encountered an incline.

Another time, the police tried to get Spot to walk down some stairs; after a few steps, it started swaying and fell over “for no apparent reason.” In another test, Spot took a “nosedive” when it encountered some tall grass.

The police reported back that they viewed the issues they had with Spot as minor. They added that they were very excited by the prospect of working with Spot in the future.

“I’m a huge fan and look at each time I get to use Spot as a spoiled kid would when he makes out his Xmas list.”

OneZero asked Boston Dynamics about the nature of the issues with Spot as they are described by MSP and any changes or updates to the robot since the test. A spokesperson said the company has “incorporated fixes flagged during testing” with its customers. “We’re continually improving our platform through software releases,” the spokesperson said.

Boston Dynamics also told OneZero that the Massachusetts bomb squad provided “early testing” of the Spot robot before it became commercially available “at no cost in exchange for early feedback.”

Boston Dynamics has big plans for its robotic pooch. In late 2019, the company made Spot available for rental, and at least 75 companies in industries such as construction and mining have given the robot a try. In early February 2020, Bloomberg reported that Norwegian oil and gas firm Aker BP will start using Spot to patrol a rig in the Norwegian Sea.

As for Spot’s future in policing, that remains to be seen. After their test, the Massachusetts bomb squad certainly sees potential.

In an email to Boston Dynamics, bomb squad state trooper Steve Sicard wrote, “I’m a huge fan and look at each time I get to use Spot as a spoiled kid would when he makes out his Xmas list.”

Independent journalist

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