U.S. robotics company Boston Dynamics today, unveiled a new robot called Stretch, designed to perform one very specific warehouse job: moving boxes.
Boston Dynamics has been showing interest in the logistics space since 2019 when it purchased Kinema Systems, a company that makes machine vision software for robots in warehouses. It then designed a wheeled robot called Handle that could move boxes using a robotic arm, balancing itself with a huge swinging counterweight like a tail.
Boston Dynamics is best known for its Robot Dog Spot, a machine designed to work in a range of environments, from offshore oil rigs to deep underground mines.
But in recent years, the company has increasingly focused attention on the logistics space, and today unveiled a new robot with just one application in mind: moving boxes in warehouses. The robot is called Stretch and looks relatively dull for a Boston Dynamics creation. This technology not modeled after humans or animals and instead aims to be as practical as possible. It has a square mobile base containing 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 pad array on the end that can grab and move boxes up to 23 kilograms (50 lbs) in weight.
Boston Dynamics on Twitter:
“Stretch is the first robot for one task that the company has built, based on requests received from companies around the world. We heard pretty much universally across warehousing that truck unloading is one of the most physically difficult and unpleasant jobs … And that’s where Stretch comes into play. We’re looking at picking up boxes around 50 pounds (23 kilograms), and our maximum rate of picking up and moving boxes can reach up to 800 cases per hour. So, it’s a fast-moving, highly versatile robot,”Michael Perry – Boston Dynamics’ VP of Business Development
As a result, Boston Dynamics claims Stretch can move up to 800 cases an hour, a through-put rate that’s comparable to that of a human employee. High-capacity batteries mean Stretch can operate for eight hours at a time before it needs recharging. The company says the robot can be operated by anyone with just a few hours of training, and that its mobile base means it can slot into spaces designed for humans.
What connects Stretch to other Boston Dynamics machines is a focus on mobility. Usually, when automation equipment is installed in warehouses the system is bolted down in one place with a workflow modeled around it. Stretch, by comparison, is designed to slide into any existing workplace where it could be useful to load or unload goods.
In a conversation with The Verge, Mr. Perry further stated,
“You can take this capability and you can move it into the back of the truck, you can move it into aisles, you can move it next to your conveyors. It all depends what the problem of the day is.”
Skepticism plays a major role here now. Putting robots to work in warehouses is incredibly difficult because of the sheer variation in these spaces. Workflows can change on a daily basis as different goods come and go, and what’s often valued is flexibility. The inability of machines to handle these challenges so far is what’s led to an all-or-nothing dynamic in automation. You either remake the entire warehouse so it’s regular enough for machines to understand, or you stick with humans.
After revealing Mr. Stretch, Boston Dynamics hasn’t released any pricing for Stretch but said the system can be installed “without requiring costly reconfiguration or investments in new fixed infrastructure. The company is currently looking for customers to pilot test Stretch and is aiming for commercial deployment in 2022.
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