Boston Dynamics is best known for its robot dog Spot, a machine designed to work in a variety of environments from offshore oil rigs to deep underground mines. But in recent years, the company has increasingly focused on logistics space and today unveils a new robot with only one application in mind: moving boxes in warehouses.
The robot is called Stretch and looks relatively boring for a Boston Dynamics creation. It’s not modeled on people or animals, but instead tries to be as practical as possible. It has a square mobile base with a set of wheels, a ‘perception mast’ with cameras and other sensors, and a huge robotic arm with seven degrees of freedom and a suction cup on the end that can grab and move boxes up to 23 degrees. kilogram (50 lbs) in weight.
What connects Stretch with other Boston Dynamics machines is a focus on mobility. When automation equipment is installed in warehouses, the system is usually bolted in one place with a workflow around it. Stretch, on the other hand, is designed to slide into any existing workplace where it could be useful to load or unload goods.
“That’s what’s exciting about this system – it can provide automation for environments that don’t have an automation infrastructure,” said Michael Perry, VP Business Development at Boston Dynamics. The edge“You can use this capability and you can move it to the back of the truck, you can move it to aisles, you can move it next to your conveyors. It all depends on what the problem of the day is. “
This allows Boston Dynamics to target customers who would otherwise avoid automation being too expensive or time consuming to integrate, Perry says. About 80 percent of the world’s warehouses have no automation equipment, giving the company a sizeable addressable market. But Stretch doesn’t have a price tag yet, and for low-margin businesses, a robot may not be worth the hassle, no matter how mobile it is.
Boston Dynamics has shown interest in logistics space since 2019 purchased Kinema Systems, a company that makes machine vision software for robots in warehouses. It then designed a wheeled robot called Handle, which could move boxes using a robotic arm, balancing itself with a huge swinging counterweight like a tail.
Perry says Handle had “the right footprint and reach” for warehouses, but couldn’t work fast enough. The robot’s arm is attached directly to the main body, which means that the whole machine had to move with every load. Stretch’s arm, on the other hand, swivels freely thanks to some clever (and patent pending) counterweights hidden within the square base.
“That’s really the secret sauce,” says Perry. “That base is able to handle the inertial force of the arm plus the box swinging at a rapid weight, without relying on a thousands of kilograms of steel plate bolted to the floor.”
Stretch’s lineage traces back to Boston Dynamics’ two-legged Atlas robot, which can balance its weight so smoothly that it can run, jump, backflip and more. “Atlas picking up a box isn’t just about stretching the arms and moving them, it’s about coordinating the hips, legs and trunk,” says Perry. “Much of the same design thinking has been incorporated into Stretch.”
As a result, Boston Dynamics claims that Stretch can move up to 800 cases per hour, a throughput comparable to that of a human worker. Thanks to high-capacity batteries, the Stretch can run for eight consecutive hours before needing to be recharged.
However, that throughput should be treated with skepticism. Putting robots to work in warehouses is incredibly difficult due to the enormous variety in these spaces. Workflows can change on a daily basis as different goods come and go, and what is often appreciated is flexibility. The inability of machines to meet these challenges has led to an all-or-nothing dynamic in automation. Either you remake the entire warehouse so that it is regular enough for machines to understand, or you stay with people, masters of the unknown.
Boston Dynamics’ big claim is that Stretch can bridge this gap. The company says the robot can be operated by anyone with just a few hours of training, and its mobile base allows it to fit into spaces designed for humans. Will it work? We won’t find out until Stretch has mastered the job. Boston Dynamics says it is currently looking for customers to test Stretch and is aiming for commercial implementation by 2022.