Several four-legged robot dogs have been deployed in the workforce for applications such as inspections, security and public safety among others. In essence, these four-legged robots are mobility platforms that can be equipped with different payloads depending on the type of information companies want to collect.
Competition in the four-legged robot market is heating up. In the US, Boston Dynamics has been developing its 70-pound Spot robot for about 10 years. Nearby, MIT has also been working on a smaller, four-legged bot it calls a “mini cheetah.” Ghost Robotics in Philadelphia is making robots geared toward military applications, while abroad, Switzerland-based Anybotics is making a four-legged robot called Anymal for industrial customers. And Chinese companies like Deep Robotics, Weilan and Unitree Robotics are building their own versions, though the latter two companies appear to be at least partially focused on the personal robotics market.
According to Allied Market Research, the global market for inspection robots generated $940 million in 2020 and is expected to reach nearly $14 billion by 2030. Take National Grid, an electric and gas utility that serves customers in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island. The company has been using two robots made by Massachusetts-based Boston Dynamics to perform routine inspections. The robots are equipped with LIDAR to help them navigate, as well as visual and thermal cameras to take detailed photos and thermal images of equipment in the substation. Before using Spot, most inspections at National Grid substations were done by people. In some cases, the substation operation would have to be temporarily shut down, because it would not have been safe for humans to do the inspections while the equipment was still on.
Electricity and gas utility company National Grid uses a quadruped robot made by Boston Dynamics to perform an inspection at one of its substations in Massachusetts.
CNBC | Magdalena Petrova
“We view the investment in the robot as a prudent investment because it improves safe operating conditions for our employees,” says Dean Berlin, principal robotics technology engineer at National Grid. “The robot also has the advantage that it is very repeatable. It collects the images from the same angle, from the same point of view every time, which is very useful because it allows us to compare images collected at different times with each other to be able to see any trends or changes in behavior.
Others who have used Boston Dynamics‘ The robot dog, Spot, includes pharmaceutical group Merck and BP, which is using the robot to autonomously read gauges, monitor corrosion and measure methane on some of its oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Malaysian oil and gas company Petronas is using robot dogs made by Anybotics to inspect its offshore platforms. Brazilian mining corporation Vale is another Anybotics early adopter of Anymal. Having completed initial tests, Vale is now in the process of purchasing a robot to carry out inspections and collect data on the condition of equipment at one of its mines. Vale says having Anymal’s help with inspections prevents his staff from having to enter potentially dangerous spaces, which are often filled with dust, noise, and rotating pieces of equipment. BASF, a chemical company based in Germany, is also testing Anymal at one of its chemical plants, where the robot collects visual, thermal and acoustic data from BASF equipment. Both Spot and Anymal have also been deployed to construction sites and, in Anymal’s case, to train yards to conduct train inspections.
“These companies typically need to send their teams of trained people to collect data on the status of their plant. So their vision is with these types of robots, like Anymal, to automate some of these tasks while making sure their people are safe.” and you can save on some of the costs associated with actually transporting people on site,” says Péter Fankhauser, CEO and co-founder of Anybotics.
Anybotics’ Anymal robot collects data at a BASF plant.
Other use cases for quadrupedal robots are starting to catch on. One of the most controversial has been the use of these robots for defense. In May 2021, the New York City Police Department said it would stop testing one of Boston Dynamics’ Spot robots earlier than planned due to fierce public backlash.
“Spot’s role in public safety is to keep people out of harm’s way. The NYPD was trying to use Spot in exactly that way where Spot was going to be the point of communication with a potentially barricaded, armed suspect. that he had hostages. That’s a good use case for a robot,” Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter told CNBC.
Although the robot in the NYPD incident was unarmed and remotely controlled by a police officer, concerns about the use of weapons in fully autonomous robots have led to the formation of an initiative known as the “Campaign to stop the killer robots. The coalition aims to ban the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons. His supporters include Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the late Stephen Hawking, and hundreds of AI experts.
For Ghost Robotics, the defense market is the company’s daily bread. The Philadelphia-based company says that of its more than 20 clients, 90% are US governments and foreign allies. One such customer is the US Air Force, which is using Ghost Robotics’ Vision 60 robot to conduct security patrols at various bases. The Air Force says the robots can operate in a wide range of temperatures and are equipped with 14 sensors to help provide situational awareness. Ghost Robotics also signed an agreement with the Singapore Defense Science and Technology Agency. The agency says it will test and develop use cases for four-legged robots for security, defense and humanitarian applications.
Tech Sergeant John Rodiguez, 321st Contingency Response Squadron security team, patrols with a Ghost Robotics Vision 60 prototype on a simulated stark base during the Advanced Battle Management System exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada , on September 3, 2020.
US Air Force | tech sergeant cory d payne
Other use cases for robotic dogs are starting to catch on. So far, Spot has been deployed to check the vital signs of Covid-19 patients in hospitals, take radiation measurements at nuclear power plants like Chernobyl, and remind people to keep social distance amid the pandemic. NASA has also been sending teams of robotic dogs from Boston Dynamics into caves to see if they can one day be used to search for life on other planets. Farmers Insurance also said the company will deploy Spot along with its claims staff to assess damage from hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather events.
Experts predict that the insurance industry alone will spend $1.7 billion on robotic systems in 2025. And other industries may follow suit. Amid the pandemic, a tight job market is forcing many companies to turn to automation. A December 2020 survey by McKinsey showed that 51 percent of respondents in North America and Europe said they had increased investment in new technology during 2020, not including remote work technologies.
“As a company, we’re really pushing for this artificial workforce, where humans and robots work side by side to solve tough problems,” says Fankhauser. “And our vision is that people shouldn’t be doing dangerous work in places where they really shouldn’t be. So our vision within the [next] 10 years that it becomes standard to hire a person or a robot to do a certain job.”
But they are not cheap. Anybotics’ Anymal costs $150,000, but the company says this includes the full autonomy platform, which comes with lidar and a docking station. Ghost Robotics’ Vision 60 robot also costs around $150,000. Boston Dynamic’s entry-level “explorer” Spot robot starts at $75,000, but it doesn’t include a self-charging base and its autonomous capabilities are more limited compared to the company’s more expensive “business model.” Payloads are also not included in the price tag. Take the National Grid robot, for example. Although National Grid did not share with CNBC how much it paid for the robot, the thermal and LIDAR cameras it uses alone cost more than $57,000. Boston Dynamics says it has sold several hundred Spot robots so far, while Anybotics has sold fewer than 100 robots.
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