Bomb squad test drives Spot, the robot

The Massachusetts State Police have tested a four-legged robot for remote observation of potentially hazardous situations.

The Massachusetts State Police have tested a four-legged robot named Spot for remote observation of potentially hazardous situations.

Built by Boston Dynamics, Spot could be described as a mechanical dog, but it is actually a general-purpose, battery-powered robotic platform that can accommodate different components – stereo cameras, sensors and mechanical arms – and can right itself if it tips over. It also features an accessible application programming interface that allows third parties to develop specific applications for it.  Spot can climb stairs and traverse rough terrain and open doors, avoiding obstacles and people and operating in dusty and wet industrial environments, according to the company's website.

The Bomb Squad leased the robot for 90 days to evaluate its potential for law enforcement applications, "particularly remote inspection of potentially dangerous environments which may contain suspects and ordinances," according to an agreement between the Massachusetts Office of Public Safety and Security and Boston Dynamics.

Law enforcement agencies, along with the military, have been using robots for some time. The Massachusetts State Police has a permanent fleet of robots – most of which use tank-like tracks to move around. As of 2017, the bomb squad had 18 robotic platforms that are used on a weekly basis, according to police records, WBUR reported.

Boston Dynamics sees its robots taking on a first responder role, rather than one of law enforcement, an idea that prompted the Massachusetts arm of the American Civil Liberties Union to request records from the State Police to learn more about how it plans to test and use robotic technologies, including whether and how they might be weaponized, according to a report in TechCrunch.

“Robot technology is a valuable tool for law enforcement because of its ability to provide situational awareness of potentially dangerous environments,” state police spokesman David Procopio told WBUR. The department never weaponized any of its robots, including Spot, he said.

At a TechCrunch conference in April, Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert played a video from the Massachusetts State Police showing Spot opening the door to a house (approximately 10 minutes into the video). "The idea is to avoid having to have a person go through that door to see what's going on," he said.  This particular robot is tele-operated from a distance to give law enforcement situational awareness about hostage situations or potential bombs without having to enter a dangerous space, but Spot can operate autonomously.

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