Robot vendor Boston Dynamics may be best known for the viral videos of its two-legged “Atlas” model or its four-legged “Spot” unit, but the company has now unveiled a wheeled design intended to cruise warehouse floors and remove boxes from truck trailers.
While Atlas and Spot are known for their coordination—such as dance moves, gymnastic flips, and hill climbs—the Waltham, Massachusetts-based company’s new “Stretch” product will focus more on dexterity. Built with a single arm mounted on a square, rolling base, Stretch is made to perform rapid box moving tasks, starting with truck unloading and later expanding into order building, the company says.
Boston Dynamics plans to launch the unit for commercial deployment in 2022, and is now offering Stretch for pilot test deployments with interested warehouse operators.
The rollout marks the first new product to emerge from Boston Dynamics since it was acquired in 2020 by the South Korean automotive manufacturer Hyundai Group. At the time, Hyundai said its move was intended to boost the development of robots for applications in autonomous vehicles, urban air mobility (UAM), and smart factories.
Accordingly, Stretch marks the company’s official entrance into warehouse automation, a fast-growing market fueled by increased demand in e-commerce, Boston Dynamics said.
The company had previously experimented with warehouse applications with its Atlas design and with “Handle,” a two-wheeled, two-armed ostrich-shaped design. Both could move boxes and cases in warehouse applications, but Boston Dynamics wanted to create a commercial version that included feedback on those earlier models.
“Roughly two years ago we realized we needed to start from the ground up and build a purpose-built robot for this. It had to be mobile, have a small footprint, be heavy enough to be useful in a warehouse, be fast enough to be useful in a warehouse, and be deployable using very little infrastructure,” said Brian Nachtigall, logistics project manager at Boston Dynamics.
The result was Stretch, a design that can lift boxes up to 50 pounds in weight, offer a seven-foot reach, use cameras for obstacle avoidance and identifying boxes, and deploy vacuum-powered “smart grippers” that can sense the objects it’s handling.
While the machine is designed to boost material handling efficiency, Boston Dynamics says it will not replace warehouse workers, but rather give them a new tool. The company envisions applications where employees in current DC jobs handling inbound inventory or warehouse receiving could transition to a role of “robot wrangler” and manage the Stretch robots as needed.
“The pandemic shined a flashlight on issues that warehouse industry folks were already very well aware of, such as the shortage of available labor,” Nachigall said. “Years from now, we’ll be talking about robots unloading trucks and say ‘Can you believe this used to be done by hand?’”
Boston Dynamics is bringing mobility to warehouse automation. Watch Stretch - our new case handling robot - move, groove and unload trucks.— Boston Dynamics (@BostonDynamics) March 29, 2021
Read the announcement. https://t.co/5B7wDDKC38 pic.twitter.com/i3Dsoz9Tq8