February 18, 2021
See Spot walk. See Spot run. Now, students in the Information Technology Program at Mizzou Engineering are seeing how they can make Spot perform more complicated tasks.
In this case, Spot isn’t a dog from a classic children’s book, but rather an agile mobile robot from Boston Dynamics. The IT Program acquired the clever canine—which comes with the ability to walk, jog and climb stairs—this semester. The goal is to incorporate it in software engineering, programming, virtual reality, design and other IT courses.
“We’re thinking about how we can utilize Spot throughout the breadth of courses we offer,” said Kristofferson Culmer. “We want students to really be creative and experiment with ideas they have while applying what they learn in class.”
Culmer, who works in the IT Program, is Spot’s official “handler.” So far, he’s accompanied Spot on visits to IT classes and offices in Lafferre Hall. He’s also programmed it to navigate the IT suite, which means Spot can now do so without human help. And already, one student has developed an iOS app to give the digital dog virtual commands.
A Game Changer
Spot will be a game-changer for the IT Program at Mizzou, said Program Director Gillian Maurer.
“We were already unique from other IT Programs in that we teach students to work with innovative and emerging technologies,” she said. “Now, Spot will give students opportunities to really think about technology applications on a different level—a level that mirrors the tech industry.”
Ultimately, faculty envision students working with external partners and industries to use Spot to solve real-world problems. And that will give them an edge in the workforce.
“Companies that have autonomous systems development going on are going to need employees,” said Dale Musser, an associate teaching professor. “I want our students to be prepared to operate in this environment. I want our students to be part of this revolution as it happens.”
Musser worked with Boston Dynamics to help Mizzou Engineering secure the robot once it became commercially available last summer. Spot is the latest addition to an autonomous systems fleet Musser has brought to the IT Program. For the past several years, he has also worked with students on drones, self-driving car modules and other autonomous machines.
See Spot on Campus
IT faculty members have both short-term and long-term goals for Spot in addition to using it in classes.
One longer-term goal is to put Spot in the spotlight, programming it to perform at half-time during football or basketball games or offering demonstrations of the robot to community groups.
“Spot is one of those things that’s going to highlight the IT Program and how special it is, and the opportunities students have at Mizzou,” Culmer said. “Students here have access to cutting-edge technology that they wouldn’t have elsewhere. The idea is to get Spot out to the public to show them what’s going on at Mizzou Engineering and in the IT Program.”
A short-term goal for Culmer is to program Spot to autonomously give tours of Mizzou. If successful, the robot would be able to navigate campus on its own, stopping at certain landmarks to play audio recordings describing the locations.
Over the coming weeks, Culmer will begin the process by taking it on walks across campus.
If you happen to see Spot roaming the halls or sidewalks of Mizzou, feel free to take photos or ask questions, but resist the urge to pet it. The autonomous animal weighs about 65 pounds—75 if mounted with a camera—and could do harm if handled incorrectly. The general rule-of-thumb is to stay six feet away.
“It is a machine, so it does generate a lot of strength,” Culmer said. “We’re training our students how to operate it safely—how to unbox it, program it and use the controller. These students are then going to train other IT students.”
Eventually, all students in the IT Program who want to work with Spot will have the opportunity. It will be incorporated into software engineering, virtual reality, cybersecurity, design and media post-production courses.
And undergraduate students won’t have to wait to start that work. Because its application programming interface (API) is Python, a basic computer language, students in the introductory programming course can get started right away.
“Students in the intro course learn Python, so they’re actually going to write programs to run on Spot,” Culmer said. “We’re the only IT Program we know of in the U.S. to be using Spot in this way. So it’s an incredible opportunity for students to get experience that will set them apart.”
Want to learn to program autonomous systems starting your freshman year? Apply to the IT Program at Mizzou today!
Learn more about Spot’s journey to Mizzou here.