Spot, Boston Dynamics's intrepid robot "dog," is equipped to explore Pompeii for structural threats to its preservation. (all images courtesy the Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

We all know that robots will rule the future, but a recent exploration of ruins at Pompeii demonstrates how they can also be useful in examining the past. Spot, a quadruped robot dog developed by Boston Dynamics, is being deployed to inspect the ancient city, famously buried in volcanic ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.

Spot can investigate underground tunnels dug by looters.

Spot represents a technological solution to an archeological safety issue: how to explore the integrity and evaluate necessary maintenance of ruins that might be unstable and put human lives on the line. Aside from the obvious risk factors posed by structures that are thousands of years old and potentially damaged by the volcanic explosion or its fallout, looters have made many interventions to the terrain over the centuries, and even in the decades since the cultural site became more intensively protected.

SPOT has been equipped with two modes of functionality, with the Leica BLKARC and the Spot CAM+ sensor respectively.

“Often the safety conditions within the tunnels dug by grave robbers are extremely precarious, and so the use of a robot could signify a breakthrough that would allow us to proceed with greater speed and in total safety,” Pompeii’s director general, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, said in a press statement from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii announcing the decision to unleash the robo-hounds. 

The use of Spot to site-check ruins is part of the broader Smart@POMPEI project which is finding tech applications for inclusive management of the park, rendering Pompeii a “Smart Archaeological Park.”

YouTube video

These innovations seek to address the archeological park’s nadir in 2008, when the Italian government declared a “state of emergency” at Pompeii. In the following years, several of the site’s notable structures collapsed, including the House of Gladiators.

It is heartening to see the robot pups doing something to preserve culture, rather than creating a vague sense of foreboding with their every movement. As we hurtle toward the inevitable rise of the machines, it is nice to know that they first did their part to preserve human cultural heritage for future generations of robots to enjoy.

Spot may be Italy’s first automaton park ranger.

Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...