Robot Dog Enforces Social Distancing

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Issue 17, Volume 110

By Shriya Anand 

Cover Image

Many of us have seen the viral videos of New Yorkers resting near their windows and waiting for others to walk by, just to jokingly remind passerby of the six-feet social distancing rule. Oftentimes, these reminders are all fun and games for TikTok videos. However, social distancing requirements are crucial to help control the spread of COVID-19. Now imagine, instead of bored people shouting out of their balconies, you see a robot dog barking messages at people who aren’t practicing the rule correctly. This has become the reality in Singapore, which has begun utilizing robot dogs to limit human contact and minimize the risk for public workers and officers who would otherwise be doing the job of enforcing social distancing.

In mid-May, the country was hit by a second wave of infected people, making the Singaporean government keener on enforcing social distancing. Municipal authorities decided to implement technology into their solution, using Boston Dynamics’s robot dog, Spot. The robot dog was released to patrol the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park for two weeks, starting on May 8.

Spot is not completely autonomous; it is remote-controlled by an accompanying officer. Though this dependency may seem to diminish the benefits of the bot, Spot does have features that set it apart from a child’s toy car. The 66-pound, four-legged robot is armed with a camera and a pre-recorded message that essentially “barks” when it encounters people breaking social distancing rules. It is also capable of climbing stairs, traveling across rough terrain, and coping with unfavorable weather conditions such as rain.

The robot also contains sensors including depth and stereo cameras, an inertial measurement unit (IMU) that records aspects of the dog’s force, as well as other force and position sensors in its limbs. These sensors are responsible for Spot’s vision, which allows it to navigate the park and avoid any obstacles. Stereo cameras have multiple lenses, and each one captures a unique picture. These pictures are then combined to create a 3D image. Though efficient in capturing a still-life, the method does tend to have issues with moving objects. Depth cameras, on the other hand, work with the help of near-infrared (IR) light. This IR light is projected on the object being captured in a pattern that appears to be a sea of dots. Though humans cannot see these dots, as the human eye is incapable of perceiving that range on the spectrum, the IR camera is designed to do exactly that. The camera uses the position of the dots to determine depth. The depth camera is useful for determining how far the robot is from obstacles, as well as recognizing the distance between two people. Because these cameras provide an outline or a hazy image, privacy issues should not be a concern.

An IMU is “an electronic device that measures and reports orientation, velocity, and gravitational forces through the use of accelerometers and gyroscopes and often magnetometers,” as described by Sparton NavEx’s Admin, whose purpose is to report aspects of the robot's position. Combining the data measured by the IMU with machine learning, the robot will automatically adjust its motors so that Spot remains upright. This is all thanks to the machine learning core, which consists of three blocks. The first block is responsible for collecting and receiving the data, the second for filtering the data, and the third for making a decision on how to adjust the motors. IMUs are found in much more than robotic dogs patrolling the streets of Singapore; they’re also components of the robots made by Stuyvesant’s own robotics team! Without IMUs, the whole bot would be angled slightly if one of the wheels overturned due to the lack of friction. With IMUs, however, the robot will automatically adjust to this issue. This can be applied to Spot, as the terrain is often uneven and full of small obstacles such as pebbles, dirt, and cracks.

Using these sensors, the robot dog will navigate efficiently, detect anyone who doesn’t practice social distancing, and alert them to do so. Though the robot is remote-controlled as of now, there could soon be cases of fully autonomous robots enforcing social distancing. Similar concepts have also been used in the United States; drones were implemented in New Jersey to maintain the six-feet rule. Regardless, the technological replacements are surely a success as they limit the number of officers required in the park and therefore decrease the number of bodies that can possibly be infected or carry the virus.