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Boston Dynamics sues Ghost Robotics over robot dog patent infringements

If you know anything about Ghost Robotics, it’s likely one of two things: 1) They make robot dogs. 2) Sniper rifles can be mounted to those robots. A majority of the Philadelphia firm’s press coverage has revolved around these facts, along with some coverage of its systems being used to patrol the U.S. border.

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

It’s shameful how both parties fight tooth + nail to defend their ability to pump endless public money into militarization. From tanks in police depts to corrupt military contracts, funding this violence is bipartisan + non-controversial, yet healthcare + housing isn’t. It’s BS.

Ghost has thus far not demonstrated any manner of ethical qualms when it comes to its work with military and law enforcement -- but it’s the company’s product design that could ultimately get it in hot water. Boston Dynamics filed a suit in the Delaware court system on November 11, alleging Ghost of infringing 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. It goes on to call out two specific models, Vision 60 and Spirit 40, both “dog”-style quadrupeds.

While Boston Dynamics tells TechCrunch it doesn’t comment on pending legislation (understandable), 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 suit notes that Boston Dynamics sent Ghost a letter on July 20, asking the company to review its patents. This was followed by multiple cease and desist letters. The filing then goes on to offer a fairly comprehensive catalog of alleged infringements.

While Boston Dynamics' Spot robot has been deployed by law enforcement agencies like the NYPD, the company has been vocal in its opposition to weaponizing robots. Last month, it joined Agility, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics and Open Robotics in penning an open letter condemning the practice. It noted, in part:

We believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely or autonomously operated, widely available to the public, and capable of navigating to previously inaccessible locations where people live and work, raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues. Weaponized applications of these newly-capable robots will also harm public trust in the technology in ways that damage the tremendous benefits they will bring to society.

Contracts with agencies have -- 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 (though deals were sunset when the company was acquired by Google). Any firm willing to build the machinery for autonomous warfare stands to make a lot of money, assuming they’re not sidelined by ethical misgivings.

Ghost gained prominence 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 to its back. The firm’s then-CEO Jiren Parikh told me at the time:

We don’t make the payloads. Are we going to promote and advertise any of these weapon systems? Probably not. That’s a tough one to answer. Because we’re selling to the military, we don’t know what they do with them. We’re not going to dictate to our government customers how they use the robots.

We do draw the line on where they’re sold. We only sell to U.S. and allied governments. We don’t even sell our robots to enterprise customers in adversarial markets. We get lots of inquiries about our robots in Russia and China. We don’t ship there, even for our enterprise customers.

The suit asks the court to award unspecified damages for the alleged infringements. We’ve reached out to Ghost Robotics about Boston Dynamics’ filing and will update the story accordingly as we hear back.