Boston Dynamics' new robot skips animal designs for warehouse work

Boston Dynamics has a new robot to simultaneously wow and terrify, with Stretch moving away from the human or animal body style of the company's other 'bots with a far more practical design instead. Unlike Spot, Boston Dynamics' robot dog, which has been designed to be as flexible as possible in how it can be deployed, Stretch is focused on warehouse automation, and specifically for moving boxes around at speed.

It's a growing segment, accelerated in particular over the past 12-18 months as online retail picked up some of the slack during the pandemic. Getting reliable human workforces – and not over-stressing them – has proved to be a challenge, and that's where Boston Dynamics comes in.

Stretch is basically a long-reach robot arm mounted on an omni-directional base. It can move in any direction, helping navigate through tight aisles and other spaces, while the arm is designed to be lightweight and flexible. The gripper on the end can grab a large variety of boxes and shrink-wrapped cases, Boston Dynamics says.

The arm has 7 degrees of freedom – otherwise known as the number of joints – and can reach far into trucks or across pallets. The base is sized like a pallet, too, and batteries can keep it running through a full shift, the company says. Alternatively, Stretch can be plugged in, and run continuously.

However, the hardware isn't the biggest deal here. What promises to set Stretch apart is its computer vision system, Boston Dynamics says, which can trim the amount of training individual customers need to do before they can deploy the robot into their warehouses and loading bays. Using the same core technology that allows Spot to navigate around potential hazards and identify objects, Stretch can more quickly figure out what it's meant to be moving and how to best manipulate them.

The sensors for that are mounted on what the company calls Stretch's perception mast, a tower alongside the arm – and which swivels with it atop the square base – loaded up with various different cameras and other sensing systems. It's also topped with warning lights, since Stretch is designed to co-exist with human workers and manually-piloted equipment in existing warehouses, rather than requiring potentially expensive refits.

Boston Dynamics expects commercial deployment of Stretch to begin in 2022. However, as was the case with Spot, it'll be running test pilots of the robot on truck unloading tasks with customers eager to get in early.