It won’t be long before brick and mortar stores will be a distant memory, replaced by entire neighbourhoods of warehouses facilitating our obsession with shopping online. And when that time comes, Boston Dynamics wants us all to know it’s got a roaming robotic arm called Stretch that’s ready and willing to schlep boxes all day long.
As Boston Dynamics’ creations go, Stretch isn’t going to have anyone predicting the fall of humanity at the hands of a frighteningly adept army of robots doing backflips or performing elaborately choreographed numbers. Stretch instead follows Spot as a robot that Boston Dynamics can actually sell as a practical tool so that one day the company can sustain its own ground-breaking research, instead of continually finding itself being sold from one company to the next.
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Stretch takes advantage of the many advancements that have come from Boston Dynamics’ more capable bots like ATLAS and Handle, and integrates them into a mobile platform that’s optimised for use in distribution centres and warehouses where there’s a constant stream of packages and cargo entering and exiting the facilities. It’s essentially a lightweight but strong and agile robotic arm with a suction-powered smart gripper on the end that can “handle a large variety of boxed and shrink-wrapped cases” without the risk of it causing physical damage in the process.
Robotic arms like Stretch already exist in distribution centres or facilities where products are packaged, but they’re always static, permanently installed, and part of a larger set of infrastructure that’s extremely costly to make changes to. These robots are usually programmed for one specific repetitive task and expect the materials they’re working with to always be delivered in the exact same spot. What Stretch offers is flexibility. The arm is attached to a compact omnidirectional rolling base so it can not only drive to wherever help loading, stacking, or unloading boxes is needed, it also uses smart computer vision so that minimal training or programming is required to get started on a new task.
Those interested in trying out Stretch in their own facilities early can apply for Boston Dynamics’ Stretch Early Adopter Program through the company’s website, while the official commercial deployment of the robot is expected to happen sometime in 2022.