A robot for the worst job in the warehouse
As COVID-19 Emphasizing global supply chains, the logistics industry is turning to automation to keep workers safe and increase their efficiency. But there are many warehouse operations that don’t lend themselves to traditional automation—namely, tasks where the inputs and outputs of a process are not always well defined and cannot be fully controlled. A new generation of robots with the intelligence and flexibility to handle the kind of variations that humans can easily handle is making its way into warehouse environments. A prime example is Stretch, a new robot from Boston Dynamics that can move heavy boxes to their destination just as quickly as a skilled warehouse worker.
Stretch’s design is something of a departure from the humanoid and four-legged robots Boston Dynamics is best known for, like Atlas and Spot. With its single massive arm, a gripper full of sensors and an array of suction cups, and an omnidirectional mobile base, Stretch can move boxes weighing up to 23 kilograms from the back of a truck onto a conveyor belt at a rate of 800 boxes per hour. A skilled human worker can move crates at a similar speed, but not all day, while Stretch can work for 16 hours before recharging. And this type of work is taxing on the human body, especially when heavy boxes have to be moved from near the ceiling or floor of a trailer.
“Unloading trucks is one of the toughest jobs in a warehouse, and that’s one of the reasons we’re starting Stretch there,” said Kevin Blankespoor, senior vice president of warehouse robotics at Boston Dynamics. Blankespoor explains that stretch isn’t meant to completely replace humans; The idea is that multiple stretch robots could make a human worker an order of magnitude more efficient. “Typically, two people unload each truck. What we want to achieve with stretch is that one person can unload four or five trucks at a time, using stretches as tools.”
All stretch requirements is to show the back of a trailer loaded with crates, and it will go to work autonomously, placing each crate one at a time on a conveyor until the trailer is empty. People are still there to make sure everything runs smoothly, and they can step in if Stretch comes across something it can’t handle, but her full-time job becomes robotic monitoring instead of lifting heavy boxes all day.
“No one wants to receive.” – Matt Beane, UCSB
To achieve this level of reliable stretch autonomy, Boston Dynamics has taken years of work and built on decades of experience in designing robots that are strong, fast, and agile. In addition to the challenge of building a powerful robotic arm, the company also had to solve some problems that humans find trivial but are difficult for robots, as z starts.
Safety is also a focus, says Blankespoor, explaining that Stretch follows standards for mobile industrial robots set by the American National Standards Institute and the Robotics Industry Association. Having the robot work in a truck or trailer also helps to safely isolate Stretch from anyone working nearby, and for now at least the trailer opening is fenced off while the robot is inside.
Stretch is optimized for moving boxes, a task required in a warehouse. Longer term, Boston Dynamics hopes the robot will be flexible enough to use its box-handling expertise wherever it’s needed. In addition to unloading trucks, Stretch has the potential to unload boxes from pallets, place boxes on shelves, create orders from multiple boxes from different locations in a warehouse, and finally load boxes onto trucks, a much more difficult problem than unloading due of the required planning and precision.
“Our goal at Stretch is for one person to unload four or five trucks at a time.” – Kevin Blankespoor, Boston Dynamics
In the short term, the best place for a robot like Stretch is unloading a trailer (part of a warehouse job called “receiving”), agrees Matt Beane, who studies working with robotics and AI at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “No one wants to receive,” he says. “It’s dangerous, tiring and monotonous.”
But Beane, who has led a team of field researchers in a nationwide study of warehouse automation for the past two years, points out that there may be important nuances at work that a robot like Stretch will likely lack, like the one Interaction with the people working on other parts of the receiving process. “It’s exchanging subtle, high-bandwidth information across boxes that people across the board use as critical inputs to get their jobs done effectively, and I’ll be uniquely impressed if Stretch can pull this off.”
Boston Dynamics spent much of 2021 converting Stretch from a prototype built largely from parts designed for Atlas and Spot to a production-ready system, shipping to a select group of customers in 2022, with broader sales expected in 2023 . For Blankespoor, this milestone is just the beginning. He believes such robots will have a huge impact on the logistics industry. “Despite the success of automation in manufacturing, warehouses are still almost entirely manual – we’re only just beginning to see a new generation of robots that can handle the variations you see in a warehouse, and that’s what we’re about looking forward to stretch.”
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