Boston Dynamics, famous for building robots that strut around on two or four legs, is developing a new kind of warehouse robot that’s far less glamorous but could be a lot more profitable.
The Waltham company’s Stretch robot, which rolls around on wheels, is designed to load and unload trucks in warehouses by using a vacuum gripper to lift cartons weighing as much as 50 pounds.
“People move 500 billion boxes a year globally,” said Kevin Blankespoor, Boston Dynamics’ vice president of product engineering. “All of that [is done] manually right now. So there’s a big opportunity for robots to get into the warehouse space.”
Stretch won’t completely replace human workers. Instead, one person will control multiple Stretch units. As trucks pull into a warehouse, a human will open the trailer door and set up the robot just outside. The machine will use its onboard cameras to sense the sizes and shapes of every box, then use its flexible arm and suction gripper to start unloading the vehicle, placing the boxes on conveyor belts or pallets. Once the robot begins the job, no further human intervention is needed, and its built-in battery should keep it going for eight hours before needing a recharge.
“We’re actually building a whole new division of the company going after warehouse robotics,” said Blankespoor.
That’s a major strategic shift for a company that was founded in 1992 to develop advanced robots for the US military. Boston Dynamics didn’t bring a product to the civilian market until 2019, when it introduced Spot, a four-legged machine capable of walking up and down stairs or over rough terrain. Boston Dynamics has sold hundreds of the $75,000 robots to industrial users, as well as police departments.
But the move to warehouse robotics makes perfect sense to industry analyst Dan Kara, vice president of robotics at WTWH Media “It’s the same reason why bank robbers rob banks,” said Kara. “That’s where the money is.”
According to Rian Whitton, robotics analyst at ABI Research, materials-handling robots generated $800 million in revenue last year, but will develop into a $49 billion market by 2030, as companies worldwide strive to automate their supply chains.
A lot of this money is likely to end up in Greater Boston, a global center for warehouse robotics. Amazon kick-started the sector in 2012 when it acquired Kiva Systems of North Reading and made it the headquarters for Amazon’s in-house robot business. Kiva veterans launched 6 River Systems in Waltham; and warehouse company Quiet Logistics of Devens, a former Kiva customer, founded Locus Robotics to build machines for itself and other logistics companies. And Waltham-based Vecna Robotics has become a major provider of automated tugs and forklifts.
Blankespoor said Boston Dynamics plans to bring Stretch robots to market in 2022. But the company hasn’t decided on pricing yet. Boston Dynamics may sell the system outright, or lease it to warehouse operators.