Mizzou takes place technology to a new level as Robot Dog Spot takes the field


College football has seen the future, and the future has just barked.

In fact, the robotic dog “Spot” cannot bark, sniff, scratch, or growl. But he can WiFi, and, saint moly, he can dance.

In college football’s latest iteration on fan engagement and venues technology, the University of Missouri took something away from the 22sd Century this month – subtly dropping a K-9 robot into its October 2sd halftime show against Tennessee – and the reverberations are still being felt around the world.

“That day, only one primary Twitter publication of our engineering school attracted 1.8 million views, ” Missouri College of Engineering Associate Professor Dale Musser said, failing to mention that an ESPN UK presenter showed the Spot highlights and then shouted: “Put it on for Messi”.

How and why this happened illustrates the emerging intersection between robots and sport. Missouri are the first college football team to run (or strut) a mechanical dog, and, judging by Musser’s inbox, their school won’t be the last.

“Look at this,” Musser says, “Another SEC school just emailed me about this. “

The Spot robot dog cannot bark, but can climb on its hind legs.

By the time Spot left Faurot Field in Missouri on October 2, controlled by a joystick, the joy itself in the stadium was palpable. With the exception of a few put-off viewers – who took to the internet to mention the film “Black mirror” or express their general fear of the robot anything – the dog’s performance was greeted with a standing ovation in the stadium and a boisterous celebration from the engineering students who contributed.

“Like they won the Super Bowl,” says Nate Beattie, the computer science major in Missouri and a member of the marching band that helped run Spot.

The day has its origins in Musser’s decision, at the end of summer 2020, to cold call Boston Dynamics – who designs and sells robotic dogs, among others. He found out how much Spot cost ($ 74,500 plus tax), how much the rebate for educational institutions was (about $ 5,000), and that he had to sign a legal agreement (allegedly to use Spot for any purpose). educational, not in illegitimate manners).

Luckily, Mizzou’s engineering department had received a significant sum of money for the study of autonomous systems, machine learning, and advanced learning technologies. He had the money. The school then struck a deal with Ameren, a potential customer of Boston Dynamics, a local power company associated with a nuclear power plant near Fulton, Missouri. The deal was for Missouri engineering students to use Spot while working on “solutions” at the nuclear power plant.

These tasks would include spot inspections, securing data, capturing images of pipes and valves and, in other locations, possibly fire prevention. Boston Dynamics approved the engineering school’s plans for the robot, and in January 2021, Spot arrived wrapped in a bubble on campus.

Musser says his next step was to bring Spot into the student body and faculty – one way or another – and sent out a huge group email. “If you were into the arts, then you received an email from me,” Musser says. And the email said, ‘We own a Spot, and it does things like dancing. We would like to do arts-related things with Spot. ‘ ”

One of the first faculty members to do a double take was Dr Amy Knopps, director of the school’s famous marching band, Marching Mizzou, and a forward-thinking fan engagement. College football had come a long way since the University of Southern California Marching Band in 1979 captivated the nation by The “defense” of Fleetwood Mac; halftime shows needed innovation and needed it fast. So Knopps quickly responded to Musser.

“I had seen Spot on Instagram do like this little back and forth dance,” Knopps says. “I thought, ‘What? “No. 1 was a robot, and second, the robot was actually dancing. I was like, ‘Okay, how about we bring Spot out to dance with the Golden Girls.’ I just saw it all. ”

Golden girlsMarching Mizzou’s revered and glamorous cheerleaders were alerted to Knopp’s plan – as well as the rest of the group – during a program reunion ahead of this ongoing 2021-22 school year. Then, out of nowhere, Spot walked into the room alongside engineering students from Missouri. The Golden Girls wanted to pet him.

Missouri Junior Nate Beattie Hand Control Spot on Robot Path on College Football Field.

Missouri Junior Nate Beattie Hand Control Spot on Robot Path on College Football Field.

“Dr. Knopps told us, ‘He’s a special guest because he’s going to be in one of our half-time shows,” says Beattie, a junior who plays saxophone in the marching band. “We say, ‘Wait, what?’ They even tilted the robot dog’s head like real dogs do. People loved it. ”

The robot’s technology was then explained to Beattie and selected members of the marching band. Spot had its own IP address and different modes of operation. In his research mode, he could complete missions, get to a charging station, and naturally avoid hitting a wall. But in “choreographic mode”, he could climb on his hind legs, jump, roll his shoulders… or boogie.

Knopps and the engineering team began rehearsing with Spot in “choreographic fashion”, although the technical details were complex. The business would be risky. Would Spot be able to move efficiently on the artificial turf of the pitch? What if a stadium filled with 75,000 cell phones interrupted the frequency on which the robot was operating? Spot would enter the field controlled by Beattie’s portable joystick, similar to a Nintendo Switch. But for Spot to dance, it would be controlled by a laptop computer halfway through a football field, dependent on a secure and functioning internet connection. If the signal failed, the robot would simply collapse and fall back.

So that was the obvious reason why none of this had been attempted before in a giant sporting setting. In Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League, a team called the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks rolled out a plethora of dance spots in their outdoor bleachers – but only at the start of the pandemic when the team was playing in a deserted stadium. Missouri was trying something more daring, something that would have fans engaged… or disengaged.

Knopps, hoping for the best, woke up in Columbia, Missouri on game day, October 2sd, with the scent of the rain. Her heart sank. The forecast was for intermittent showers, and she imagined a lonely Spot sitting in his engineering warehouse – it was raining, never to make his college football debut.

“We were just like, ‘Ugh, oh my god is this going to happen? ” ‘Knopps says. “Spot is water resistant unless it’s submerged, but of course we’re not going to put Spot where it could be damaged. I mean, it was minute by minute, “Can we do this? Can we do this? Can we put Spot there? Will it be dry enough? ”

Fortunately, the rain was light and subsided in the second quarter. Beattie, on time, walked to the 50-meter line behind Spot. The robot was at the center of the stadium video board. Internet frequency worked.

Spot danced to three appropriate songs – Styx’s Mr. Roboto, Michael Jackson Dancing machine and Weeknd’s Starboy – and never stumbled, except when the robot moved a tick too slowly and almost collided with a member of the group who was walking fast. But Beattie drove Spot to safety.

When it came to an envelope, the news traveled quickly, via Instagram and Twitter. There were video reruns as far as Spain, England and Japan… and as close as Alabama.

A few days later, Musser received an email from Auburn University. Apparently, what happens in the Southeastern Conference stays in the Southeastern Conference, because Eric Wetzel – a PhD and full assistant professor at the McWhorter School of Building Sciences in Auburn – told Musser that his university also had a Spot, and wanted to know… how they got it.

“Because you can’t really test this in beta,” says Wetzel. “You can’t test the beta and say if there are 70,000 cellphones and WiFi and if there are 5G antennas at Auburn stadium, will there be interference? It’s hard to test in the lab. So I think [Missouri] said they were just hoping for the best and that everything went well. But it could have gone badly for them. So kudos to Dale and his team for their willingness to take the risk.

“I don’t think we’re far from what’s going on everywhere. Missouri has proven it. They have proven that the technology is stable enough to do this. ”

The question – with venues technology booming around the world – is, which college football stadium is next? No.19 Auburn plays a gigantic match against No.12 Ol ‘Miss on October 30e, and Wetzel says he’s tempted to have their Spot

Auburn's robot dog Mac is ready to go.

Auburn’s robot dog Mac is ready to go.

(which he calls “Mac”) dance to Jordan-Lièvre Stadium. Again, maybe not.

“I think we’re just going take a walk there before the game, and he’ll just do his little robot wave and stuff, ”Wetzel says. “I mean, a little part of me is tempted to make him dance, but the other part of me says a lot can go wrong, and I’d rather things go wrong in my lab than in front of 90,000 people and millions of people. ESPN.

“Like I said, ‘Good for Missouri.’ I’m glad Mizzou got into some kind of proof of concept. Brave people, huh? ”



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