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A robot dog in the Montreal Metro

Thierry Marcoux
Thierry Marcoux
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Original article in Le Devoir by Alain Mckenna.

Final stop. Spot, the robot dog from Boston Dynamics, arrived at Bonaventure station this summer. The automated and autonomous quadruped was enlisted by the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) to detect anomalies in subway stations. And to signal when it encountered an issue, so to speak.

Between 1 am and 4 am for about ten nights spread out between May and September, after the stations were closed, Spot patrolled the Montmorency platform of Bonaventure metro station in downtown Montreal. Every ten meters, it took photos of the station. In the background, these photos were compiled to create a 360-degree portrait of the station. Custom software then identified the presence of undesirables: burnt-out lights on the ceiling, graffiti on the walls, garbage on the floor, and other elements that did not belong there.

To truly put the robot dog to the test, STM intentionally left waste lying around and sketched a few fake tags on the station walls. The STM’s goal was to determine if it would be possible to automate a portion of the surveillance and maintenance of its stations, so that its employees could quickly get to work when they arrive in the morning.

Almost perfect

This project came to fruition thanks to provincial financial support called "Support for Innovation Projects." This program assisted Osedea, a Montreal-based startup, and the mastermind behind this project, in covering half of the costs of this technological showcase. Osedea, which lent its Spot robot dog to the STM, received $48,000 from this program.

Moreover, through this exercise, Osedea was able to develop a software platform allowing them to use Spot with other partners across the province. The robot dog is equipped with a camera and an articulated arm with a gripper. This combination enables Spot to perform tasks that surveillance cameras alone cannot accomplish.

"In the event of an emergency, Spot could cut off an electrical circuit," explains Robin Kurtz, the Osedea developer responsible for Spot's proper functioning. "Spot can also perform readings other than visual, such as detecting high levels of CO2, which is useful for fire services and other departments..."

However, it was not Spot's role during its patrols at the Bonaventure station, as clarified by Osedea. In fact, certain limitations of the robot, such as its battery autonomy, affected its usefulness in the STM project. The robot dog could not open all the doors or operate the revolving doors, which would have allowed it to visit the entire station without human intervention.

To truly put the robot dog to the test, the STM deliberately left some debris lying around and sketched a few fake tags on the station walls.
To truly put the robot dog to the test, the STM deliberately left some debris lying around and sketched a few fake tags on the station walls

Osedea estimates that Spot accomplished approximately 83% of what a human would have done in its place. It's not bad, but it's not the productivity gain that truly makes robots appealing to companies, whether private or public. Especially considering the acquisition cost of the robot, adds Martin Coulombe, the president of Osedea.

"If Spot cost four times less, it would make a huge difference," he says. Because inevitably, the shortage of workers creates a demand for automated and robotic solutions, but not all organizations have the means to invest in this technology. According to its manufacturer, Boston Dynamics, adopting your own Spot robot dog costs around $75,000 USD ($100,000 CAD).

A threat to risky jobs

The leaders of Osedea still see cases where such a robot can prove its worth, even today. In fact, one could say that the first jobs threatened by the arrival of robots are precisely the riskiest jobs.

"In situations where a human cannot perform tasks due to safety or accessibility reasons, a robot can be practical and even cost-effective," assures Martin Coulombe. "For example, a robot like Spot can carry out surveys in areas of a factory where occupational safety standards prohibit a worker from going."

Spot also has advantages over a simple surveillance camera system. There are already 2,000 cameras spread throughout the Montreal metro. However, their usage is regulated by rules that discourage the integration of computer vision capable of identifying people or objects, such as the AME system produced by Osedea as part of their pilot project in the metro.

For the STM, this test has primarily launched the discussion on future applications where a robot like Spot would simplify the lives of its approximately 11,000 employees. Without citing specific cases, spokesperson Philippe Déry indicated to Le Devoir that a more thorough inspection of the approximately 71 kilometers of tracks on which the metro operates could be entrusted to a keen-nosed robot dog.

"If Spot can perform more dangerous tasks; while it does so, humans can do something else", concludes Philippe Déry.

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