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Singapore Is Using a Robotic Dog to Enforce Proper Social Distancing During COVID-19

Spot “barks” orders anytime people are standing too close

Spot is a four-legged robotic "dog" that is on patrol in Singapore to ensure proper social distancing measures during COVID-19. (Courtesy Singapore Government)
smithsonianmag.com

The Singapore government is using a robotic dog called Spot to ensure that walkers, runners, and other park visitors stay at least six feet away from one another. The initiative is part of an ongoing effort to help minimize the spread of COVID-19 by promoting social distancing in public places. Part of a pilot program launched earlier this month, the robo-dog has already been spotted barking orders in Singapore parks.

Developed by Boston Dynamics, a Massachusetts-based engineering and robotics company, Spot is one of the latest—and most creative—tactics being deployed by governments around the world as they begin to ease stay-at-home orders during the global pandemic.

Since May 8, the automated surveillance robot has been patrolling a two-mile stretch of pathway at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, an urban respite located in the heart of Bishan, a highly populated area of the country, as James Vincent reports for the Verge. Using remote navigation, the four-legged, 60-pound robot is equipped with a camera and pre-recorded message that “barks” a warning whenever it comes across someone who isn’t practicing safe distancing.

“Spot will be controlled remotely, reducing the manpower required for park patrols and minimizing physical contact among staff, volunteer safe distancing ambassadors and park visitors. This lowers the risk of exposure to the virus,” according to a press release from the Singapore government. “Spot is fitted with safety sensors to detect objects and people in its path. It has [built-in] algorithms to detect an object or person within one meter of its proximity to avoid collision.”

Throughout the program’s two-week trial period, at least one national parks board officer will accompany the robot. In addition to Spot, the local government is using a fleet of 30 drones to help monitor some of the country’s most popular parks and natural areas, which measure in real time how many visitors are at each destination. This data is then aggregated to a website that locals can use to determine which parks have the lowest amount of visitors at any given time.

The pilot program comes in response to an attack that occurred on May 4 at a different park in Singapore where a man allegedly stabbed a national parks board officer with a knife while he was enforcing safe distancing measures, as per an article published by the Singapore-based newspaper The Straits Times.

Spot isn’t the first robo-dog to grab headlines (and YouTube clicks) during the pandemic. Last month, the Boston Globe reported that Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School in Boston employed the robotic canine to conduct remote triage among patients suspected to have COVID-19.

Boston Dynamics originally developed Spot as a resource that could be used in unstructured environments that were inaccessible to traditional robots, such as construction sites and other places where the terrain can be limiting. However, in recent months, various organizations have been finding new ways to put the cutting-edge technology to good use, including its current gig as a social distancing officer.

“A few months ago, I don’t think anybody was thinking about social distancing,” says Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics. “The fundamental value of [Spot] is that you’re taking somebody out of a hazardous environment where they’re being asked to do something very simple and you’re putting a robot there instead.”

Sounds like a good dog, indeed.

About Jennifer Nalewicki

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, United Hemispheres and more. You can find more of her work at her website.

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