The NYPD’s New Robot Dog Can’t Hurt Us. Yet.
Photo: @ FreedomNTV / Twitter
Last week the NYPD sent robotic dog to active crime scene in the Bronx, where a home invasion was underway at an apartment building in the Wakefield area. The spooky images of the bright blue four-legged robot casually walking down the street raised our collective hackles. What exactly was he doing on the stage? And are we all about to enter a real life episode of Black mirror?
As you might expect, the NYPD is low-key about its latest robotic toy (because that’s pretty much everything it does). But here’s what we know so far.
It is Task, a 70-pound robotic dog tested by the NYPD. The department has dubbed the one it uses “Digidog”.
Boston Dynamics. The company has been around since the 1990s, when it spun out of Marc RaibertMIT’s Computing and Artificial Intelligence Lab’s research into advanced robots. Boston Dynamics has developed all kinds of robotsincluding some can move boxes and to have human agility. He also developed a few for military use with DARPA funding, an advocacy agency that often funds a lot of technology and innovation, including decades ago the creation of the Internet itself. In December 2020, Hyundai bought a majority stake in Softbank’s company (which bought it from Google in 2017) for $ 1.1 billion. The company launched a Spot prototype in 2015, with the intention of turning it into a commercial product, and began selling it in the summer of 2020.
Spot can walk and navigate in space via the remote control and can be programmed to follow a specific route. It doesn’t just work on flat asphalt: the robot dog can climb stairs and curbs, and traverse grass and gravel. It can carry around 30 pounds of equipment and, strangely enough, it can even Dance. An upgrade of the arm, allowing it to open doors and the like, just became available.
Spot’s maximum speed is 1.6 meters per second (about 3.5 miles per hour, the average walking speed of a human). So if you are concerned about a Black mirror type of incident – and especially if you recall a 2017 episode titled “MetalheadIn which a robot dog chases a speeding pickup truck, crashes through its rear window (while it’s still moving!), And erases the driver’s head with a bang – rest assured that you can probably outrun Spot. The wild cat, another robot built by Boston Dynamics, can travel about 20 miles per hour. Fortunately, this one does not walk around.
The business version of Spot, a robotic dog made by Boston Dynamics.
Photo: Boston Dynamics
No, but it has two-way communication, so the human operator could bark through the robot.
It is equipped with cameras that allow the human operator to see 360 degrees around the robot, in daylight or using night vision. Its five depth cameras, in-body force sensors and various optimization algorithms also help it move, according to Boston Dynamics.
Not exactly. It is operated by humans via a remote control. A member of the NYPD Technical Assistance Research Unit told ABC 7 News that running is like playing a video game. However, there is a “docking” function which can ask the robot to “come home” with just the push of a button, Roomba style. And then there’s a pre-programmed route feature: give it directions, and it’ll do its job.
Spot was commercially available since 2020 at a starting price of $ 74,500.
No one will say it. But the NYPD frequently “tests” emerging products from tech companies. New York City served as the primary testing ground for IBM surveillance technology, which allowed police departments to use facial recognition software to search camera images for images of people by hair color, facial hair and skin tone. This trial took place between 2012 and 2016 without civic surveillance. It’s not hard to imagine that robot dogs will also be part of the police landscape. Efforts to regulate all of these tech products – and publicly disclose how they work – have failed so far.
We know of at least two other times Spot did his thing. In October, after a man shot and killed a woman in a Brooklyn parking dispute, the NYPD sent the robot to a basement where the gunman had barricaded himself. And in December, the NYPD also deployed its Digidog at a hostage situation in Queens, using the robot to deliver food to the people inside.
In a 90-day trial in 2019, Massachusetts State Police were the first law enforcement agency to use Spot. The agency tried it in situations where it would be dangerous to send a human, mostly on call from the bomb squad. At that time, the the robot was scared of the tall grass, fell down the stairs and paced when he encountered a slope.
Spot is also used by the BP oil company to perform inspection work in remote locations such as oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and read the dashboards; by Ford to perform factory scans for retooling, saving time and money; and by NASA to explore distant places on Earth and possibly for deployment to the Moon. National Grid uses it to inspect substations, and Foster + Partners used the robot to assist with site visits and compare construction work to document specifications.
In cheeky or disturbing use, an arts organization outfitted their Spot with a paintball gun and programmed it to allow users to remotely control it to spray gallery with paint. Boston Dynamics condemned this use on Twitter and stressed that all Spot buyers must abide by the company’s terms and conditions, which prohibit any use that intimidates or harms humans or animals and states that it must not be used as a weapon or configured to contain any armed. If Boston Dynamics finds out that a user is in violation of the terms, this will void the warranty and prevent the robot from being updated, maintained, repaired, or replaced.
We are not sure! But, as the paintball incident illustrates, in the wrong hands (human or robotic), something could go wrong. What if the paintball gun was a real gun? Memes have even circulated with advice on how to “deactivate” Spot manually; Boston Dynamics has not confirmed whether they actually work. Spot may not yet be armed with weapons, but there’s really no way to know what the future may bring.