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Working from home, with robots

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Working from home, with robots

Illustration by Grayson Blackmon / The Verge

How Boston Dynamics’ engineers are upgrading the company’s four-legged Spot from their basements and backyards

When the pandemic stopped Sam Seifert from going into the office, he, like millions of other Americans, was forced to bring his work home with him. His work, though, wasn’t exactly suited to the domestic environment. It was big and loud. It stomped about his apartment and upset the neighbors. But that’s robots for you — never the most socially graceful of creatures.

As an engineer at Boston Dynamics, Seifert’s job is to upgrade the company’s star robot, the four-legged Spot. Since the firm began leasing Spot to customers last year, it’s been deployed on construction sites, factory floors, and off-shore oil rigs. But quadrupedal robots are an unfamiliar addition to any workplace, and Boston Dynamics is still upgrading Spot’s ability to deal with challenging environments, from steep stairs to oil-slicked floors.

Usually, this work is done in the company’s headquarters where there’s ample space and resources to stress-test robots. But since the pandemic hit, the firm’s engineers have been forced to improvise, and dozens of Spot units (71 in total) have been sent home with employees to be tested in front rooms, yards, and basements around the country.

Seifert says he showed up at the office one day in March just to be turned around and sent packing with his own Spot. It was an exciting change to begin with, he told The Verge over email, but the challenges soon became apparent.

The first problem was that Spot is very much an industrial robot, and makes a hell of a racket, especially when navigating around a small Boston apartment. “Spot is loud,” Seifert told The Verge. “It’s not nearly that noticeable in an industrial setting or in a larger room, but in small confined spaces, Spot’s feet stomping tends to resonate.”

Following a noise complaint from his neighbors (“I don’t blame them”), Seifert started taking Spot outside for testing, braving the cold of his hometown and the hassle of carrying the 71-pound Spot up and down two flights of stairs multiple times each day.

To beat the weather, he initially tried working from his car with Spot outside, then working outside with Spot while wearing ski gear. But the cold proved too much. “The first rule of programming is ‘if your fingers are numb, you’re doing it wrong,’” says Seifert.

He settled instead on a routine of writing code in his apartment, carrying Spot outside, running experiments, then carrying Spot back upstairs to charge, analyzing the results, and doing it all over again.

Eventually, he says, the sheer physical toll of this regime got to him. “I lost a lot of weight over the three days that I used this workflow.” But with the company working on a big update for Spot’s mobility, he’d have to find another way to carry on with his work.

 Photo by Sam Seifert
Engineer Sam Seifert takes Spot out into the cold — but keeping your hands warm while driving is hard.

Re-creating an oil slick at home

Testing Spot is an unavoidably physical process, says Boston Dynamics’ lead robotics engineer, Zack Jackowski. The company’s aim, he says, is to turn Spot into a “mobility platform” — a multipurpose machine that goes anywhere humans can, and a few places they can’t.

“We mostly sell the robot to industrial and commercial customers who have a sensor they want to take somewhere they don’t want a person to go,” says Jackowski. “Usually because it’s dangerous or because they need to do it so often that it would drive someone mad. Like carrying a camera around a factory 40 times a day and taking the same pictures each time.”

Jackowski doesn’t have a Spot unit at home, but while speaking to The Verge over Skype, it’s clear he has memorabilia. Over his right shoulder is a poster showing Spot as a space pirate’s loyal companion (drawn, he says, by a fan on DeviantArt). Over his left is a print made to look like an old-fashioned National Geographic illustration. It shows BigDog, a quadrupedal robot designed by Boston Dynamics to be a pack mule for the military.

 Photo by Sam Seifert
Engineer Sam Seifert tests out Spot’s clambering ability on some rocks.

“One of the luxuries of working on something like this is that people made fan art,” says Jackowski. “It’s the best thing you can ask for, as someone in a creative profession, to have people who care about your work.”

It’s perhaps not surprising considering how popular Spot is on social media, but Boston Dynamics’ engineers spend a lot of time thinking about how people react to their robots. Their animal-like design can create confusion, as people expect them to behave and think like animals, reacting to noises and turning around to see objects, for example. (In reality, Spot has cameras on all sides of its chassis, giving it 360-degree vision.)

Jackowski notes that although Spot’s design was inspired by nature, it was built first and foremost as a robot. The fact that it moves like an animal, he says, just shows that the company’s engineers and evolution settled on similar solutions. Animals walk the way they do “because they’ve evolved over millions and millions of years to have the best way of moving their bodies,” he says. If you start trying to create a machine that moves as efficiently as possible from scratch, you end up with some “convergent evolution.”

Since the pandemic hit, the big task for the company’s engineers has been updating Spot’s software with new mobility and autonomy features. These updates were released in May as Spot 2.0, and a good chunk of the underlying code was done from engineers’ homes.

When Spot shipped to customers last year, the navigation options were relatively basic. Using a controller like a Nintendo Switch, with a screen in the middle for camera feeds and joysticks on either side for steering, customers could guide Spot around a route and have the robot retrace this path automatically. With Spot 2.0, there are more options for navigation, including setting waypoints, running predefined “missions” (like patrols and inspections), and greater flexibility with uploading and editing internal maps.

The main goal, says Jackowski, is to make Spot as easy to use with minimal technical training. “The biggest feedback we get is ‘take care of more stuff for us,’” he says.

When Spot does fail in the field, Boston Dynamics’ engineers collect data logs from affected units and re-create the scenario that caused the problem. One issue addressed in the 2.0 update, for example, is Spot’s handling on slippery surfaces, as even four legs can struggle to stay upright on metal floors slick with oils and lubricants.

The solution, says Jackowski, was to “go back to our lab and set up something just like that and make the robot fall over a whole bunch of times.” Doing this from home was tricky, but the company’s engineers improvised. One employee re-created a slippery surface by placing Spot’s feet on a wax sheet on top of a wooden clipboard, then pulling the clipboard away with some string.

 GIF: Boston Dynamics
Recreating a slippery surface with some wax paper and a clipboard.

Space is another issue that has to be overcome. Seifert, who struggled with testing Spot in his Boston apartment, ended up moving back with his parents who live in a lakeside house where there’s more indoor and outdoor space. He’s got extra company, too, in the form of his brother and his brother’s new puppy, which apparently gets along with Spot just fine.

“She was scared the first time she saw Spot, but now she’s used to it,” says Seifert. “She follows me and Spot around whenever we’re doing tasks outside.” Another engineer whose neighbor’s dog saw Spot said animals aren’t too bothered by the machines. “Once they smell it [they’re] disappointed and basically ignore it from then on.”

Seifert is one of the engineers who’s had to create what Jackowski calls “antagonistic environments” in his home to test Spot’s navigation abilities. Sometimes that means creating the equivalent of a robot obstacle course; other times, it means mocking up crowded or varied environments to make sure Spot can handle a variety of clutter. “I spent a lot of time trying to get my parents’ basement to not look like my parents’ basement: either by moving things around, or spicing things up with a saw horse or two,” says Seifert.

 Video by Sam Seifert
Spot goes for a stroll around Sam Seifert’s parents’ basement.

To prepare for working from home, the company’s safety team wrote new guidelines for engineers taking Spot back with them, though they mainly involve keeping the public a safe distance from the robots. Seifert recalls one incident when someone who didn’t know Spot came up and gave it a bear hug.

“People unfamiliar with robots want to treat Spot like a dog, and calmly approaching a dog before bending over for pets and hugs is a reasonable thing to do,” he says. “Thankfully no one got hurt, but Spot has some really powerful motors and a lot of pinch points.” Now, engineers know to warn anyone who approaches the robots to keep a safe distance.

If things do ever go sideways, though, there’s always the “big red button” to fall back on — a shutdown switch built into Spot’s control app that’s available as an optional physical button on the robot’s chassis. Press it once, and Spot freezes; press it twice, and the machine “gently slumps to the ground.” Problem solved.

 Photo by Sam Seifert
Sam Seifert with his brother’s new puppy (left) and Spot (right).

Spot learns to play cornhole

So far, there have been no accidents with Spot’s home visits, and Boston Dynamics is now looking to its next big upgrade: the commercial launch of a robotic manipulator arm that fixes onto Spot’s head. This will open up a whole new range of jobs, but right now, Spot is practicing by picking up litter.

 Photo by Andy Barry
Andy Barry and his Spot unit at home.

Andy Barry is another Boston Dynamics engineer who’s taken Spot home with him, along with one of only two existing preproduction robot arms. Like Seifert, his last day in the office was in early March, and he too has been lucky enough to move to his parents’ house in western Massachusetts, along with his wife.

“I threw my Spot into the back of our 2004 Camry along with my wife’s monitor, some clothes, and our laptop,” Barry told The Verge over email. ”My parents’ house is much larger than our apartment in Cambridge and has enough room that I’m able to dedicate a space for Spot to run safely.”

He says, so far, everyone is more or less happy to have Spot in the house. “I don’t think my neighbors have noticed it yet. Our mailwoman didn’t even blink an eye though. I guess she’s used to dogs!”

Seifert says he gets a few more stares than this. “More than once I’ve witnessed a car drive by, only to see it a few seconds later reverse back into view and then stop for a few minutes while the driver records a video on their cell phone,” he says. But his parents live in a friendly neighborhood, so most neighbors have just gotten used to the sight of him and Spot, out for a walk.

Like Seifert, Barry’s workflow involves writing code, loading it into Spot, testing out the robot, and then analyzing the results. But instead of having Spot navigate homemade mazes, he’s been flexing its robotic arm, scattering whatever random items he can find around the house to act as a picking challenge.

To date, these objects have included hand towels, litter, and any random “knick knacks that don’t look breakable.” One test involved scattering recycling items onto his parent’s driveway and getting Spot to pick it all up (though he had to clean up where Spot missed certain items). For another, he tried to teach Spot how to play the classic lawn game of cornhole.

 Video by Andy Barry
Spot tries a classic lawn game (while being kept on a leash).

The company says it’s not willing to share too many details on how the arm will operate for now, but Barry says they’ll initially be focusing on the sort of gripping tasks you’d see in industrial environments — twisting valves, lever, and similar tools.

Does all this mean that, one day, Spot might be available to help out in your own home? Don’t hold your breath. Despite the ease with which Boston Dynamics’ engineers say they’ve been able to work from home with Spot, they all stress that it’s very much an industrial machine and so not at all suited to knocking about your kitchen or front room.

“A lot of people who aren’t familiar with Spot think it would be great for in-home use, either helping the elderly, the sick, or people with special needs,” says Seifert. “I think that’s a great target to keep in our sights, but the technology needs to improve by leaps and bounds before we’re ready to operate in a constrained space around humans.”

Until then, only Boston Dynamics’ engineers will get to take Spot home for summer. That’s probably for the best.

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