Spot, the terrifyingly amazing (or amazingly terrifying?) dog robot created by robotics company Boston Dynamics, has only been known to the public for less than a year. Yet the quadruped is already soaking up interest from several groups and agencies — not the least of which is the military.
Last week, DARPA announced that it has already begun running simulated combat tests with Marines accompanied by Spot robots, at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. “We want to continue to experiment with quadruped technology and find ways that this can be employed to enhance the Marine Corps warfighting capabilities,” said Capt. James Pineiro, the branch head for Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, in a press release.
At first glance, Spot doesn’t seem like an obvious robot to use to wage war. Boston Dynamics boasts quite a few other bots that probably make more sense. Older sibling BigDog stands at 2.5 feet tall and weighs 240 pounds, capable of running 4 mph and carrying an additional 340 pounds on its back. Cheetah can zip around at 28 miles per hour, and a version made by MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab can even jump over obstacles without missing a beat.
Meanwhile, little Spot comes in at a svelte 160 pounds. More nimble, sure, and also more kickable (see the video above if you can handle watching humans abuse robots). There are advantages to the smaller frame. Spot is more useful for scouting missions, or ferrying small items for soldiers back and forth — especially in rough terrain. It’s also quieter than the bigger brethren, making it better for stealth operations.
Most useful, however, is the fact that Spot isn’t human — just metal and wires. In one test at an urban terrain setting, Marines sent Spot into a building to look for threats and potentially bait enemies into coming out or revealing their positions. Maybe Spot makes it out alive and unharmed — maybe it’s shredded in a fiery scatter of bullets and explosions. Either way, actual flesh-and-blood soldiers are in a much better position to stay safe.
Spot can be operated from as much as 500 meters away, using just a radio link to a laptop and a game control. A DARPA roboticist was quoted as saying they’ve had people as young as four learn how to operate Spot using this setup.
“Spot is great and has exceeded the metrics that we’ve provided,” said Pineiro. “We see it as a great potential for the future dismounted infantry.”
At this point, DARPA and Boston Dynamics have developed a pretty good rapport when it comes to field-testing the company’s metallic animals. It remains to be seen how much longer we’ll need to wait before they show up on the battlefield, but it’s no longer a question of if — we’re down to “when.”