Boston Dynamics sues Ghost Robotics for robot dog patent infringements

If you know anything about Ghost Robotics, it’s probably one of two things: 1) They make robot dogs. 2) Sniper rifles can be mounted on these robots. Most of the press coverage of the Philadelphia firm revolves around these facts, along with some coverage of its systems used to patrol the US border.

That last part was enough to get the attention of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted:

It’s a shame how both countries are fighting tooth and nail to protect their ability to pump endless public money into militarization. From tanks in police departments to corrupt military contracts, funding this violence is bipartisan + non-controversial, but healthcare + housing is not. This is BS.

So far, Ghost has shown no ethical qualms when it comes to its work with the military and law enforcement — but the company’s product design could eventually land it in hot water. Boston Dynamics filed a lawsuit in the Delaware court system on Nov. 11, alleging that Ghost infringed on multiple patents.

“Boston Dynamics’ early success with the Spot robot did not go unnoticed by competitors in the robotics industry, including Ghost Robotics,” the suit notes. He goes on to call out two particular models, the Vision 60 and the Spirit 40, both dog-style quadrupeds.

While Boston Dynamics tells TechCrunch it doesn’t comment on pending legislation (understandably), it adds:

Innovation is the lifeblood of Boston Dynamics, and our roboticists have successfully filed approximately 500 patents and patent applications worldwide. We welcome competition in the emerging mobile robotics market, but we expect all companies to respect intellectual property rights, and we will take action when those rights are violated.

The lawsuit notes that Boston Dynamics sent Ghost a letter on July 20 asking the company to reconsider its patents. This was followed by numerous cease and desist letters. The filing then offers a fairly comprehensive catalog of alleged violations.

While Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot has been deployed by law enforcement agencies such as the New York Police Department, the company has been vocal in its opposition to arming robots. It joined Agility, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics and Open Robotics in writing last month open letter condemnation of the practice. He noted in part:

We believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely controlled or autonomous, widely available to the public, and capable of moving to previously inaccessible places where people live and work raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues. Weaponized applications of these robots with new capabilities will also damage public confidence in the technology in ways that will damage the enormous benefits they will bring to society.

Agency contracts, of course, played a major role in the growth of robotics firms, including Boston Dynamics, which relied on DARPA as a major source of funding in its early days (although the deals ended when the company was acquired by Google). Any firm willing to build the autonomous war machine stands to make a lot of money, assuming it’s not insulated from ethical concerns.

Ghost gained notoriety late last year when images emerged from a trade show featuring one of its robots with a SWORD Defense Systems Special Purpose Unmanned Rifle (SPUR) mounted on its back. The then executive director of the company Jiren Parikh told me at the time:

We don’t do the payloads. Will we promote and advertise any of these weapon systems? Probably not. This is a difficult one to answer. Since we sell to the military, we don’t know what they do with it. We will not dictate to our government customers how to use the robots.

We draw the line where they are sold. We only sell to US and allied governments. We don’t even sell our robots to corporate customers in competitive markets. We get a lot of inquiries about our robots in Russia and China. We do not ship there, even for our corporate customers.

The suit is asking the court to award unspecified damages for the alleged violations. We’ve reached out to Ghost Robotics about Boston Dynamics’ submission and will update the story accordingly when we hear back.

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