Published October 12, 2022
It doesn’t bark. It doesn’t shed. It doesn’t even have a head.
Meet Spot, UB’s newest gadget. The robot dog, made by Boston Dynamics, arrived on campus earlier this summer.
Since then, it has been making its home — doghouse, if you will — inside the Distributed Robotics and Networked Embedded Sensing (DRONES) lab on the first floor of Davis Hall.
One recent morning, the robot sat motionless in a corner of the lab amid quadcopter drones until its handler, Karthik Dantu, associate professor of computer science and engineering, awakened it with a remote control.
Spot then sprung to life, like an alert border collie ready to herd a flock of sheep. Its four legs moved in synchronized step, tapping the concrete floor in military-like cadence.
Spot trades certain canine features — namely a head and fur — for a sophisticated network of sensors that allow it to walk in rough terrain, up and down stairs, and in other real-world environments that robots have struggled with.
Spot can even dance.
But it’s not all fun and games. The pup has a job at UB. It will serve as a learning and research platform, enabling faculty and students to explore new frontiers in robotics, autonomous vehicles, computer science, artificial intelligence and other fields.
“It’s really an incredible machine at the forefront of robotics,” says Dantu. “I think our students, as well as our faculty, are going to have a lot of fun working with Spot.”
The robot is the latest in a series of cool gizmos that UB has acquired for learning and research. Perhaps the most visible is Olli, the mostly 3D-printed, self-driving shuttle that plies Service Center Road on North Campus.
Olli is sometimes joined by its less conspicuous cousin, an unnamed Lincoln MKZ that’s retrofitted with autonomous vehicle technology. The pair often cruise by SOAR, the Structure for Outdoor Autonomy Research, one of the largest outdoor, enclosed drone-testing facilities in the nation.
Elsewhere at UB, there is the industrial robot Baxter (built by Rethink Robotics) and other pneumatic robots, as well as the Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Data Science, where Dantu serves as an affiliated faculty member.
David Doermann, the institute’s director and an Empire Innovation Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, says the institute serves as a clearinghouse at UB for AI, data science, robotics and other exciting, tech-focused fields.
The acquisition of Spot, as well as other strategic investments, will help bring together educators, researchers, students and external partners to continue UB on its path as an international leader in creating, curating and disseminating data and computing-related knowledge and skills, he says.
“Our mission is to provide the infrastructure and opportunities to build relationships, facilitate visionary ideas that are needed to address society’s most pressing problems,” he says.
One other note about your friendly neighborhood robot dog: Spot will soon have a new name. Doermann and Dantu have been seeking suggestions from the UB community, and plan to unveil Spot’s new handle later this month.