Boston Dynamics has revealed its latest robot, Stretch, designed for far less glamorous purposes than its other creations. Where Spot and Atlas grabbed headlines with backflips and dancing, Stretch is designed to move boxes in warehouses, TechCrunch has reported.
Stretch has a far more practical form factor than Spot or Atlas, though it still somehow looks like a Boston Dynamics robot. It has a pallet-sized square wheeled base, a "perception mast" with cameras and sensors, a multi-jointed robotic arm with seven degrees of freedom and a suction pad "hand" that lift boxes weighing up to 50 pounds.
While Stretch might be more practical than past models, it's innovative for a commercial product. Unlike fixed robots typically found in warehouses, it can move with relative freedom. As such, it can be integrated into more warehouses for the purpose of loading, moving or unloading boxes. "Stretch is a versatile mobile robot for case handling, designed for easy deployment in existing warehouses," according to Boston Dynamics' Stretch information page. "Unload trucks and build pallets faster by sending the robot to the work, eliminating the need for new fixed infrastructure."
The majority of warehouses around the world aren't designed for automation, giving Boston Dynamics a large potential market for Stretch. The company originally developed a prototype called Handle for that purpose, but it didn't work quickly enough. By comparison, the new model can safely grab and move boxes at higher speeds, thanks to a newly designed, lightweight arm that can pivot on its own.
The smart-gripper uses "advanced sensing and controls" to handle a large variety of boxes and shrink-wrapped cases, Boston Dynamics said. It also comes with computer vision tech that allows it to identify boxes without extensive training. With all that, it can move up to 800 cases an hour, equivalent to a human employee, while operating for eight hours between charges. At the same time, employees will only need a few hours of training to use it, the company said.
Whether that figure will hold up in real-world conditions remains to be seen, especially for warehouses with a wide range of goods. As we've seen with self-driving cars, putting robots to work in the real world has been far more challenging than a lot of incredibly intelligent people thought. We should know soon enough, however, as Boston Dynamics is currently seeking companies to pilot the tech, with the aim of starting sales in 2022.