Photo: Spot, the dog-like robot
Dog-like robots developed by SoftBank’s Boston Dynamics will be deployed on the main campus of the 352-year-old German pharmaceutical group Merck to alleviate the need for “routine work” in incineration plants. The Darmstadt-based group — Germany’s oldest Dax company — has employed the services of Spot, which can climb stairs and carry out “missions” lasting up to two hours, to inspect its thermal exhaust treatment facilities.
The plant, which processes solvents that cannot be released into the environment, requires regular safety checks that were previously carried out manually by members of staff. “We want to make sure that people are not occupied by stupid, routine work,” said Michael Wilk, who runs the engineering services unit at Merck’s headquarters, which employs 700 people.
“We are really looking for specialised people and for people to advance in their professional education,” he added. “We need our technical experts to do more sophisticated work.” Mr Wilk cited the shortage of qualified technicians in Germany, where the number of applicants for apprenticeships has dropped sharply, according to the economics institute IW in Cologne, with tens of thousands of training positions set to remain unfilled.
Together with Energy Robotics, an offshoot of the local TU Darmstadt university, Merck equipped Spot with smart sensors and infrared cameras, training it to look into sinks, measure temperatures, take photos to assess water levels and read gauges. “We are looking forward to expanding Spot’s use cases, especially for challenging indoor and outdoor areas, such as autonomous inspection of a wastewater treatment plant,” said Dorian Scholz, the chief executive of Energy Robotics.
The robot will be further developed to automatically raise an alarm if defects are found and detect noise variations. The adoption of Boston Dynamics’ robot comes as the US tech group enters the European and Canadian markets. Architecture firm Foster + Partners is also among the first to use Spot in Europe to get a consistent data set from construction sites, including London’s Battersea Power Station. Boston Dynamics, which was sold by Google owner Alphabet to SoftBank in 2017, said it had enjoyed increased interest in its products in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The number of spaces where you don’t want to send a person in to do something that’s very simple . . . has grown pretty substantially since March,” said Michael Perry, the company’s vice-president of business development. Spot, he added, had been used by Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital to provide remote telemedicine. Equipped with an iPad and several sensors, the robot is able to measure body temperature, pulse and oxygen levels, among other things.
The Singaporean government has also used Spot to access quarantine facilities.