Boston Dynamics is synonymous with four-legged robots, particularly its consumer model Spot. But in the past few years, the company has been expanding into logistics — one of the most challenging and potentially lucrative sectors in modern robotics.
Today, Boston Dynamics announced the first commercial purchase of its pallet-stacking machine Stretch, which will be starting try-outs in DHL warehouses. The deal is worth $15 million, and Boston Dynamics will deliver a “fleet” of robots (exact numbers unknown) “to multiple DHL warehouses throughout North America over the next three years” where they will start with the work of truck unloading.
“Deployment of the first Stretch units in DHL warehouses will begin this spring, and DHL plans to gradually scale Boston Dynamics’ robots for additional tasks and across multiple facilities in phases over the next few years,” said the company in a press release.
Stretch itself is essentially a huge robotic arm on a mobile base. The robotic arm has seven degrees of freedom and a suction pad array with which to grab and move boxes (maximum weight: 23 kilograms or 50lbs). A “perception mast” contains cameras and sensors to navigate, and internal batteries keep it running for eight hours until it needs to recharge.
It looks like a relatively simple design compared to the animal-like Spot, but Spot only has to walk and move its sensors about: Stretch has to grasp and manipulate a vast array of boxes in complex 3D maneuvers. It’s a little less complicated with square packages compared to the task of “picking” individual items (a job which even Amazon, with all its money and ambition, has so far failed to automate) but it’s not at all simple. Boxes vary in size and weight; they might be crumpled or leaking, and you may finish packing a pallet only for something to shift, forcing you to start over. Now, imagine you’re a robot — bereft of the millions of years of evolution that gifted humans motor skills.
But despite the challenges, logistics firms say there’s a pressing need to ramp up automation due to massive labor shortages. Last year, the US transportation and logistics industry reported a record 490,000 job openings, and with low pay and grueling hours keeping workers away, that gap won’t be filled any time soon. (Companies are currently bumping wages and benefits but such changes won’t take effect immediately.) Right now, that gives firms like Boston Dynamics a golden opportunity. A stretch goal.
Correction, 27th Jan, 5:24: A previous version of this story said DHL was “investing” $15 million in Boston Dynamics, but this is not the case: the deal is simply worth $15 million. We regret the error.