The nearby volcano blackened the sky and swallowed the city in clouds of ash; centuries later, robot dogs now prowl the ruins, guarding the city’s dead against the ravages of time.
That’s not a movie plot. It’s what’s actually happening at the 2,000-year-old Roman ruins of Pompeii, in Southern Italy. Boston Dynamics’ robot dog, Spot, will help archaeologists and preservation crews by patrolling the 66-hectare site for signs of erosion, damage, and looting.
“They’re good dogs, Brent”
The volcanic ash that buried Pompeii in 79 CE turned a thriving Roman coastal city into a well-preserved tomb—and a time capsule. Today, the archaeological site is one of the most famous in the world, and it continues to reveal new glimpses of life in a cosmopolitan Roman city during the empire’s heyday, like an ancient fast-food counter excavated in 2020.
But in 2013, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) found that erosion and weathering were taking a toll on the parts of the site archaeologists had excavated so far. To protect the ruined city and keep restoration workers safe, park authorities needed to find new ways to monitor for damage, restore ancient structures, and preserve them for the future. That’s where Spot comes in: The bright yellow robot dog is part of a project called Smart@POMPEI, which uses high-tech tools to help keep an eye on the ancient site.
Spot is a four-legged walking robot that can cross uneven terrain while carrying small payloads like cameras and sensors. Like a flying drone, the doglike robot can follow a programmed route, or operators can steer it via remote control. Viral videos have shown Spot performing acrobatics and even using its front foot to hold a door open for a buddy.
The robot’s almost-but-not-quite lifelike way of moving (welcome to the Uncanny Valley) unnerves some observers (and makes others, including your faithful correspondent, wish it had a proper snoot for booping), while its potential for military and surveillance use unnerve arguably more of them. Spot is the successor to a bigger, heavier four-legged robot called BigDog, which Boston Dynamics designed to carry gear alongside infantry in the field. That’s not the kind of role that would put a robot into direct conflict with people, of course, but it provides another facet to our ongoing societal debate about the role of robots and drones in surveillance and warfare.
Boston Dynamics made Spot available for lease to selected “partners” in 2019, and for commercial purchase in 2020, and at least 100 yellow robo-dogs have taken on all sorts of work that’s probably unrelated to the impending machine uprising, such as inspecting containment for liquid nitrogen rocket fuel at SpaceX’s launch site in Boca Raton, Florida. A few of them have even played roles in various art installations.
The light, nimble 25-kilogram robot’s size and agility make it the perfect watchdog for an archaeological site like Pompeii, according to Pompeii site director Gabriel Zuchtriegel.
Paw Patrol: Pompeii
Much like real dogs trained to work in disaster zones, Spot can maneuver easily across uneven rock and rubble, slip down narrow passageways between ancient walls and piles of volcanic debris, or crawl into crumbling underground tunnels. But unlike an actual dog, Spot can map precise details of the terrain it crosses and the conditions of the walls and other structures around it. Park officials at Pompeii say they’ll use the data to spot problems and plan strategies for preserving the site.
Spot will patrol areas that have been restored and are open to the public, but the robot dog will also help monitor progress in areas where recovery and restoration are still in progress, like the tomb of a formerly enslaved merchant unearthed last year.
Pompeii park officials also plan to test the robot dog’s skills at finding and exploring tunnels dug by looters, who still occasionally sneak into the site looking for artifacts to sell on the illicit art and antiquities market. Looting at Pompeii decreased sharply in 2012, reports The Guardian, thanks to an Italian law enforcement crackdown on art trafficking, but new looters’ tunnels still show up at the site occasionally. And they can be dangerous for human workers to investigate.
“Often the safety conditions within the tunnels dug by grave robbers are extremely precarious,” said Zuchtriegel. “The use of a robot could signify a breakthrough that would allow us to proceed with greater speed and in total safety.”
Keeping humans at a safe distance from potential hazards has long been one of the biggest selling points for drones and other robots, and it’s why Spot’s earliest adopters included the Massachusetts State Police, which has at least one of the dog-bots on its bomb squad. Despite that experience, there has been no mention of sending Spot to search for the dozen or so unexploded World War II bombs that still litter an unsurveyed 22-hectare swath of the ancient city.
See Spot run
Boston Dynamics started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) before spinning off into a private company in 1992. Last year, Hyundai Motor Corporation bought the company. A new Spot, with a battery, charger, and tablet controller, sells for $74,500. However, in its ongoing effort to crush our dreams forever, the company has specified that it sells the robots for commercial use, not for individuals to keep as mechanical pets.
Spot won’t patrol the ruined city alone. Its partner on this mission is a drone equipped with a laser scanner, which will fly its patrols above the site, scanning the ground beneath with lasers to map the ruins and the surrounding terrain.
In a delightful coincidence, the people who once lived in Pompeii might have recognized Spot’s name. The formidable three-headed guardian at the gates of the Roman underworld was named Cerberus, whose Greek name may derive from a much older proto-Indo-European word for “spotted.”