Boston Dynamics has a knack for making its robots seem relatable, at least in their online videos. We have collectively watched its robotic dog Spot go from a wobbly early version all the way to a polished commercial product. And the company’s headless, humanoid Atlas robot now does parkour and backflips. Today, however, Boston Dynamics has announced a new bot that isn’t as flashy as its charismatic siblings—but it is incredibly practical. Its name is Stretch, and it’s designed to move boxes and other objects in warehouses and other industrial settings.
How does the Stretch Robot work?
Stretch resembles the articulated robotic arms we’re used to seeing in factory settings. The Boston Dynamics bot, however, utilizes a wheeled base that lets it travel freely around its surroundings. The video demo gives a clear example of how advantageous that kind of mobility can be. When it’s time to unload a truck full of boxes, Stretch can actually move the roller belt into place on its own, then begin the process of unloading and sending the boxes down the line without the need for human intervention.
The articulated arm moves with seven degrees of freedom (DoF), which means it has a full range of motion, including pitch, yaw, and roll. At the end of the arm, Boston Dynamics has employed a suction-powered “smart gripper” for picking up boxes and other objects weighing as much as 50 pounds. Pressure and optical sensors in the gripper allow it to evaluate whatever object it may be holding for the best grip.
Stretch sees the world through the Boston Dynamics computer vision systems, which allow it to identify boxes as soon as it’s out of the crate. Each individual customer won’t necessarily have to train the bot to identify the specific boxes it’s going to be moving.
Where does it fit in with the rest of the Boston Dynamics lineup?
At the end of last year, Boston Dynamics released a video of its robots dancing together, which included an ostrich-inspired bot named Handle. That bot never got a commercial release, but it shared many similar components with the new Stretch model. Handle had a pair of wheels and an active module sticking out of the back of the device in order to balance out the weight of the arm in the front. The demos proved that Handle was stable, but it always looked somewhat precarious moving around on just two wheels.
This new formation also gives Stretch a movement advantage. It can fully turn in place without having to bob around, back up, or do complex maneuvers to simply change orientations.
The company says this is its first foray into robots specifically designed for commercial warehouse facilities and distribution centers, which number more than 150,000 worldwide. Last we heard from Boston Dynamics, the company was showing off how its Spot robotic dog can now operate totally independently on far-flung or dangerous locations like off-shore drilling rigs. Stretch is clearly designed for safer circumstances where the situations remain more predictable.
If you have your own giant factory and you want a Stretch to do some loading and unloading for you, Boston Dynamics is currently planning to start selling them commercially in 2022. So if you expect your Pokemon card reselling business to really take off between then and now, you’ll want to get your name on the pre-order list for the first wave.