The NYPD’s New Robot Dog Can’t Hurt Us. Yet.

Woof. Photo: @FreedomNTV/Twitter

Last week, the NYPD sent a robotic dog to an active crime scene in the Bronx, where a home invasion was underway in a Wakefield area apartment building. The creepy footage of the bright-blue four-legged robot casually walking down the street raised our collective hackles. What exactly was it doing on the scene? And are we all about to enter a real-life episode of Black Mirror?

Predictably, the NYPD is tight-lipped about its newest robotic toy (as it is about virtually everything else it does). But here’s what we know so far.

What exactly is this thing?

It’s Spot, a 70-pound robotic dog being tested by the NYPD. The department nicknamed the particular one it’s using “Digidog.”

Whose idea was this??

Boston Dynamics. The company has been around since the ’90s, when it spun out of Marc Raibert’s research at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory on advanced robots. Boston Dynamics has developed all sorts of robots, including some that can move boxes and have humanlike agility. It has also developed a few for military use with funding from DARPA, a defense agency that often funds a lot of tech and innovation, including, decades ago, the creation of the internet itself. In December 2020, Hyundai bought a majority stake in the company from Softbank (which had bought it from Google in 2017) for $1.1 billion. The company introduced a Spot prototype in 2015, intending to turn it into a commercial product, and started selling them in summer 2020.

What does it do?

Spot can walk and navigate space via remote control and can be programmed to follow a specific route. It doesn’t just work on flat asphalt: The robot dog can walk up stairs and curbs and traverse grass and gravel. It can carry about 30 pounds of equipment, and, eerily enough, it can even dance. An arm upgrade, allowing it to open doors and the like, has just become available.

Can it chase someone down?

Spot’s maximum speed is 1.6 meters per second (roughly 3.5 miles per hour, the average walking speed of a human). So if you’re concerned about a Black Mirror kind of incident —and particularly if you remember a 2017 episode called “Metalhead,” in which a robot dog chases a speeding van, crashes through its back window (while it’s still in motion!), and obliterates the driver’s head with one bash —rest assured that you can probably outrun Spot. The Wildcat, another robot built by Boston Dynamics, can run about 20 miles per hour. Good thing this one isn’t wandering around.

The enterprise version of Spot, a robotic dog made by Boston Dynamics. Photo: Boston Dynamics

Does it bark?

Nope — but it can be equipped with two-way communication so the human operator could make a barking sound through the robot.

How does it do all of that?

It’s equipped with cameras that enable 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 around, according to Boston Dynamics.

So does Spot navigate on its own?

Not exactly. It’s operated by humans via remote control. A member of the NYPD’s Technical Assistance Research Unit told ABC 7 News that running it is like playing a video game. However, there is a “docking” function that can instruct the robot to “return home” by just pushing a button, Roomba-style. And then there’s a preprogrammed-route function: Give it directions, and it’ll do its thing.

How much does it cost?

Spot has been commercially available since 2020 at a starting price of $74,500.

How did the NYPD get one?

Nobody will say. But the NYPD frequently “tests” emerging products from tech companies. New York City served as the primary testing ground for IBM’s surveillance technology, which allowed police departments to use facial-recognition software to search camera footage for images of people by hair color, facial hair, and skin tone. That tryout ran between 2012 and 2016 with no civic oversight. It’s not hard to imagine that robot dogs will similarly become part of the policing landscape. Efforts to regulate all these tech products — and publicly disclose how they work — have failed so far.

When has the NYPD used its Digidog?

We know of at least two other moments when Spot did its thing. In October, after a man shot a woman in a parking dispute in Brooklyn, the NYPD sent the robot into a basement where the shooter had barricaded himself. And in December, the NYPD also deployed its Digidog to a hostage situation in Queens, using the robot to deliver some food to the people inside.

Who else has Spot?

In a 90-day trial in 2019, the Massachusetts State Police was the first law-enforcement agency to use Spot. The agency tried it out in situations where it would be dangerous to send a human, mostly on calls by the bomb squad. At that time, the robot was spooked by tall grass, fell over while walking down stairs, and paced in place when it encountered an incline.

Spot is also being used by the oil company BP to do inspection work in remote locations such as oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and to read instrument panels; by Ford to do scans of factories in preparation for retooling, saving cost and time; and by NASA to explore remote locations on Earth and possibly for deployment on the moon. National Grid is using it to inspect substations, and Foster + Partners used the robot to assist with site visits and to compare construction work to the specifications in documents.

In a use that’s either cheeky or foreboding, an arts organization equipped its Spot with a paintball gun and programmed it to allow users to control it remotely to spray a gallery with paint. Boston Dynamics condemned this use on Twitter and pointed out that all buyers of Spot must abide by the company’s terms and conditions, which forbid any use that intimidates or harms humans or animals and stipulate that it must not be used as a weapon or configured to hold a weapon. If Boston Dynamics finds out about a user violating the terms, it will void the warranty and prevent the robot from being updated, serviced, repaired or replaced.

Can it hurt me?

We’re not sure! But, as the paintball incident illustrates, in the wrong hands (human or robotic), something could go awry. What if the paintball gun were a real gun? Memes have even been circulating with tips on what to do to ‘disable’ Spot manually; Boston Dynamics hasn’t confirmed if they actually work. Spot might not be equipped with weapons yet, but there’s really no way to know what the future may bring.

The NYPD’s New Robot Dog Can’t Hurt Us. Yet.