Meet Spot, Colby’s New Agile Robot

Natural Sciences8 MIN READ

A chance connection to the College leads to a timely donation of a valuable new learning tool

Students Hale Aktas ’25, Katie Bernard ’25, Narit Trikasemsak ’25, and Mary Zhang ’25 interact with Spot, a robot that resides in Colby’s Immersive Navigation Systems and Inclusive Technology Ethics lab.
By Christina NunezPhotography by Caitlin Penna
May 31, 2022

Fritz Onion, a technology entrepreneur and philanthropist who lives in Maine, bought a four-legged robot named Spot as a present to himself when the company he cofounded went public on NASDAQ in 2018.

The agile robot, which is built by the robotics company Boston Dynamics and bears a strong resemblance to a large dog, provided Onion a few years of entertainment and experimentation. “I set it up to move around our yard and navigate the stairs,” said Onion, who lives in Wayne in central Maine. “It was a fun adventure, but I decided I wanted to expose Spot to more people.”

Last December, he donated the robot to Colby. Since then, Stacy Doore, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science, and a group of Colby students have been getting to know Spot and its potential. Among the questions they are asking: What role can these types of robots play in society and can a robot serve as an assistive technology to help people who are blind or have severe visual impairments?

A student’s research paper, along with a bit of serendipity, led to the donation. In spring of 2021, Azalea Yunus ’22 wrote about the ethical implications of using agile robots in public spaces as part of Doore’s course, Creating Future Worlds: Computing, Ethics, and Society.

Yunus chose the topic after seeing news coverage of the New York Police Department’s controversial deployment of a “robot dog” into a public housing environment. Doore thought the paper was an intriguing topic to explore further and offered to coauthor another paper with Yunus for an upcoming computing ethics conference.

That process sparked another idea: What if Doore’s lab could get an agile robot for its own research? Doore contacted Boston Dynamics. But these robots are quite expensive, and buying one outright wasn’t in the budget. She asked the sales rep if the company had an educational donation program.

No, he answered—but he had recently heard from a man in Maine who was interested in donating his agile robot to a college or university.

“Within that day, I was talking with Fritz Onion over email,” Doore said. The random connection was meant to be: Onion’s mother, Professor of English, Emerita Patricia Onion, taught at Colby for many years. She retired about a decade ago and lives in Mount Vernon.

The robot resides in Doore’s Immersive Navigation Systems and Inclusive Technology Ethics lab (INSITE). In addition to ethical questions, Spot lends itself to Doore’s assistive technology research. She wants to see if Spot can provide a proof of concept for the use of large industrial robots as guide dogs for individuals who are visually impaired. Using these sophisticated machines could help fill a gap: Guide dogs can often be difficult to obtain because of the expense and the intensive training required, and they can only work for a few years before they must be retired, which exacts an emotional toll on the individuals who rely on them to navigate the world safely.

Doore and her students are working with Visiting Assistant Professor of Computer Science Allen Harper on the project. Harper is co-director of the INSITE lab.

The current research goals are to explore the development of new voice and haptic interface controls so users can interact with the robot with a smartphone app and vibro-tactile controls. As a part of this research, the students will also study human-dog team interactions in collaboration with codesigners who are blind and experts in guide-dog behavior. This information will help to guide the development of the new multimodal interface and features developed for the necessary human-robot interactions.

“This approach is not intended as a replacement for a person’s guide dog, instead it might provide an alternative navigation system in situations where bringing a guide dog might not be an option,” Doore said.

Spot has already been embedded into Colby’s computer science courses. Spot was used as a case study in Doore’s ethics class this spring to help students analyze the risk and impact of emerging technologies, how to apply ethics to real-world scenarios, and also how to create responsible computing policies and processes that reflect the needs of many stakeholders.

See Spot run

Robots are still novel enough in daily life that people often don’t know what to make of them. The two-foot-tall Spot can run fast. It’s strong, able to carry up to 30 pounds. It can climb stairs. It can also take pictures. Unsurprisingly, Spot can make some people nervous.

“There are ways of introducing emergent technologies ethically, and some of those ways involve talking to stakeholders who would be affected,” Doore said. “What this work with Spot is doing is modeling for computer science students how to work with direct and indirect stakeholders when introducing emerging technologies into a community.”

Spot offers computer science students the opportunity to program advanced robotic functions. Matthew Maring ’22 has been working on setting up the robot and building code libraries for incoming students to use. That hasn’t been easy, Maring said. Spot’s preprogrammed workflows are more suitable for dangerous industrial missions on oil rigs or at nuclear reactors than for educational missions in classrooms or interacting with students and faculty in hallways.

“He’s very capable. That’s the exciting thing, that we can use him for just about anything. The challenge is making sure that a lot of students can be trained to work with him,” Maring said.

Technology entrepreneur and philanthropist Fritz Onion (left) confers with Visiting Assistant Professor of Computer Science Allen Harper about the operation of the robot. Onion, whose mother taught English at Colby, donated his Boston Dynamics robot to College as a learning tool. “It’s fun to see young, energetic minds at work,” he said after a recent lab visit.

Harper said the robot will have a huge impact in motivating students to conduct their own research.

“We’re trying to build a dynamic lab culture, and the opportunity to work with this level of industrial robot is something that’s very rare at the undergraduate level,” Harper said. “Our lab is very much a student-driven environment, and because we hope to bring in early computer science students, it can be a self-sustaining environment.”

The goal, Harper said, is to facilitate what he calls “the switch.” That’s the point, usually between their second and third year, when undergraduate students go from being consumers of information to creators of technologies. In the case of Yunus, reading a news article sparked her own research and authorship.

She and Doore presented their research at an ethics conference last October hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE ETHICS), and they have since coauthored a follow-up paper proposing a policy framework for the responsible use of these types of robots. Doore will present that paper this summer at Ethicomp 2022, a computer-ethics conference in Finland, and will present the curriculum development research at Harvard University/MIT’s Ethical Issues in AI and Computing Conference.

Yunus said she appreciated the opportunity to do high-level research. “It was a great experience to be treated very seriously as a researcher and to think about, how can we expand upon the ideas in this paper? How can we contribute original research in this area? How can we make it as impactful as possible?” she said. “I’m really appreciative to have as wonderful a mentor as Stacy to help me through that process.”

Narit Trikasemsak ’25 will work with Doore and Harper as a research assistant this summer, focusing on voice-based interfaces. Rayna Hata ’23 and Nick English ’23 will focus on different aspects of Spot as an emerging assistive technology device during their honors theses next year.

Students work with Spot the robotic dog.
Computer science students Mary Zhang ’25, Azalea Yunus ’22, and Adaobi Nebuwa ’23 operate Spot during a demonstration at Colby’s INSITE lab.

Harper and Maring have trained other computer science students to safely operate Spot for  outreach demonstrations. Trikasemsak, Hale Aktas ’25, and Mary Zhang ’25 have hosted several lab visits as well as a Zoom meeting with the coding club at Waterville Junior High School. Doore advises the club, which is run by Colby student Carly Levinson ’24.

“The generous donation of the agile industrial robot has provided a unique opportunity for Colby students to contribute to innovation in research and teaching in emerging assistive technologies,” Doore said. “We look forward to finding new ways to embed this advanced technology into our courses and lab research as well as continue to engage students in learning about and applying responsible computing practices.”

That is exactly why Onion donated the robot.

“This worked out really well,” said Onion, who visited the lab for a demonstration. “It’s fun to see young, energetic minds at work.”

Editorial Director Bob Keyes contributed to this story.