Man’s mechanical best friend

By Matthew Sotlar / The Jambar

Youngstown State University alumnus and roboticist Andrew Morgan visited campus April 5 in the Rossi Room of Kilcawley Center with his artificially intelligent robotic dog, Spot.

Morgan is a research scientist at Boston Dynamics AI Institute. After giving a brief presentation on the history of robotics and the Boston Dynamics, he presented Spot, which is built similar to a real dog but has a grabbable claw in place of a head.

Morgan said robotic dogs mainly rely on cameras and sensors for movement and interaction.

“As Spot is moving around, he is actually mapping out his environment,” Morgan said. “He has five different cameras on him, two in the front, one on each side and then one in the back. So, as he interacts and moves, he is actually getting a 3-D map and is moving amongst the environment according to that map.”

Spot, whose model name is Rex, lifted squeeze toys, moved chairs, ran, dodged obstacles and stood up after being pushed over. Similar robots designed by the institute can also dance to music.

As one of many robotic dogs constructed by Boston Dynamics, Morgan said robots like Spot are usually made for factories and other labor-intensive areas.

“Typically, these type of Spot robots are very often seen in factories and settings that are very, maybe dangerous or mundane or maybe dirty,” Morgan said. “In a factory setting, you will have maybe some robots checking the valves or taking temperature readings of different bearings to make sure a machine is not going to fail.”

The concept of dynamic locomotion with robots dates back over 40 years. Morgan said Boston Dynamics is constantly working towards upgrading Spot and other robots.

“We actually have around 20 of these Spots around the institute that are used for various things, usually trying to make robots smarter. So, maybe realizing some sort of service tasks [such as] going into the kitchen and maybe interacting with the dishes, things like that,” Morgan said.

Morgan said the company aims to create and research robots like Spot to make more advanced robots in the future.
“The institute is working on some of the future challenges that we see,” Morgan said. “We’re really interested in athleticism. Kind of high-level ideas of trying to figure out what makes a robot of the future more advanced and more performative.”

Morgan said he hopes to see robots being used more in the workforce.

“We as roboticists, we want to continue to see robots actually being used out there making jobs safer, and as a roboticist, we are really interested in sort of that science behind human motion, animal motion and things like that,” Morgan said.

Morgan graduated from YSU in 2017 with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. He attended Yale University for his Ph.D. in robotics in 2019.