Day 6

As robots emerge as pandemic helpers, here's how to build your own robot dog

Around the world high-end robots are being deployed in response to the pandemic. In Singapore, robot dogs are patrolling parks to enforce physical distancing. Stanford University robot designer Nathan Kau says he has a plan to make robot dogs accessible to anyone who wants to build one.

Pupper the robot dog can walk, crawl, hop and even dance, says Nathan Kau

Spot, a four-legged robot dog, patrols a park in Singapore as it undergoes testing to be deployed as a safe distancing ambassador. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

As physical distancing guidelines remain in effect because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are increasingly enlisting robots to help close the gap.

In central England, the town of Milton Keynes has a robot delivering shopping supplies. In Spain, a robo-bartender is serving up contact-free beer.

In Singapore, robot dogs are patrolling parks to enforce physical distancing. These dogs, nicknamed Spot, were designed by the engineering robotics firm Boston Dynamics — the same company that inspired Metalhead, the scary killer robo-dog from the futuristic Netflix series Black Mirror.

Nathan Kau, a robotics engineer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., is encouraged by this modern-day rise of the robots. He's currently working on a robot dog that people should be able to build at home with relative ease.

Here's part of his conversation with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

A lot of people look at these robots and say, "Well, the human race had a good run." What do you think when you see them?

I think people should always be conscientious about the robots that we're building. A lot of our imaginations are not necessarily tied to what the robots can actually do. So I don't think we have to be worried quite yet since these robots are sophisticated.

But at the end of the day, they're built by us. We know what they're doing. And they don't have to be used for surveillance or anything like that.

Nathan Kau is a student and robotics engineer at Stanford University. He's part of a team that has built several models of robot dogs, including a small, open-source model called Pupper. (Submitted by Nathan Kau)

So you think we're far away from the killer robot from Black Mirror?

With recent advancements in robotics, these robots are ... being investigated to see how they can help us with problems that we have, whether it be like navigating dangerous environments, such as an oil rig, or a construction site, and doing things that we aren't good at.

So I think maybe for the foreseeable future, we really don't have to worry about them in the context of Black Mirror.

We're really working on still figuring out how to make these robots even walk around. And Black Mirror, you know, you see the robots driving a van. That's so far away in the future, that it kind of makes you laugh.

Let's talk about Pupper. This is your four-legged robot dog. Can you describe him for our audience or her for our audience?

Pupper's this robot that my team at Stanford has been building. It's about three pounds; to be exact, it's about 1.2 kilograms.

And it kind of looks like a shoe box with four legs attached and some googly-eyes. It can walk around your living room. You kind of control it with the gamepad. It could do some cute things like hopping, look at you, roll its body.

It's designed to be an educational platform for people to learn about robotics and learn things they wouldn't necessarily learn from other types of robots or learn in school.

And there is an anthropomorphic quality to Pupper's movements, into the things that puppet can do. What's "12 degrees of freedom?"

So that means that the robot has 12 motors. So some of our earlier robots, for instance, our previous innovation had eight motors. And it actually couldn't walk sideways because of this. It could walk forward and backward. It can jump up and down, but it couldn't go sideways, which was kind of a problem.

That's like Robocop not being able to go downstairs.

Yeah, pretty much. So obviously, there's a need to make some improvements. And so we basically added more motors, and in this case, we added motors to the hips. So it can walk sideways, turn and hop and that kind of stuff.

When you're creating these walks and these movements, are you doing it to try and replicate an animal movement?

In some ways, yes; in some ways, no. The "no" comes from the part that the robot isn't quite anthropomorphic. For instance, each leg has two links, maybe a thigh and a lower leg, but it doesn't actually have feet.

So our legs have basically three links to them, whereas the robot only has two. So there are some limitations there.

When you look at Pupper, do you think he's behaving in a cute way?

A lot of people say it's cute. I think it's cute. We try to make it work the best we can, so not necessarily cute first.

But because it's small, because it's kind of spry and agile, it ends up being cute. And we definitely like that about the robot.

Nathan, I'm not an engineer of any sort. But you say that I can make one of these at home.

The Pupper robot is open source, so that means you can go to our website and download all of the code and plans to build one of these robots yourself. We have a spreadsheet where you can kind of go online and buy all the different parts that you need to finish the robot, and then you can download our code and also put on the robot.

And then in a matter of hours, you can be running it around your living room.

And how much would that cost me?

So right now it costs about $900 US, if you don't have any equipment already. Relatively compared to other robots, it's very inexpensive — other robots costing tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

We think this robot will be popular for high school students, undergraduates, college [students], so they can get this kind of experience and have fun learning about robotics.

Do you think that the pandemic might be a game-changing moment for robotics?

In some ways, yes. I think people are realizing the importance of doing things without humans, right? Not putting humans in harm's way. So in some sense, it's been a real boon to robotics.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Pedro Sanchez. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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