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Boston Dynamics’ Handle Teams Up With Mobile Robots on Warehouse Logistics

Boston Dynamics and OTTO Motors partner to show how a heterogeneous robot team can be faster and more efficient

2 min read
Boston Dynamics' Handle robot and OTTO Motors
Image: Boston Dynamics

Today, Boston Dynamics and OTTO Motors (a division of Clearpath Robotics) are announcing a partnership to “coordinate mobile robots in the warehouse” as part of “the future of warehouse automation.” It’s a collaboration between OTTO’s autonomous mobile robots and Boston Dynamics’s Handle, showing how a heterogeneous robot team can be faster and more efficient in a realistic warehouse environment.

As much as we love Handle, it doesn’t really seem like the safest robot for humans to be working around. Its sheer size, dynamic motion, and heavy payloads mean that the kind of sense-and-avoid hardware and software you’d really want to have on it for humans to able to move through its space without getting smushed would likely be impractical, so you need another way of moving stuff in an out of its work zone. The Handle logistics video Boston Dynamics released about a year ago showed the robot working mostly with conveyor belts, but that kind of fixed infrastructure may not be ideal for warehouses that want to remain flexible.

This is where OTTO Motors comes in—its mobile robots (essentially autonomous mobile cargo pallets) can safely interact with Handles carrying boxes, moving stuff from where the Handles are working to where it needs to go without requiring intervention from a fragile and unpredictable human who would likely only get in the way of the whole process. 

From the press release:

“We’ve built a proof of concept demonstration of a heterogeneous fleet of robots building distribution center orders to provide a more flexible warehouse automation solution,” said Boston Dynamics VP of Product Engineering Kevin Blankespoor. “To meet the rates that our customers expect, we’re continuing to expand Handle’s capabilities and optimizing its interactions with other robots like the OTTO 1500 for warehouse applications.”

This sort of suggests that OTTO Motors might not be the only partner that Boston Dynamics is working with. There are certainly other companies who make autonomous mobile robots for warehouses like OTTO does, but it’s more fun to think about fleets of warehouse robots that are as heterogeneous as possible: drones, blimps, snake robots, hexapods—I wouldn’t put anything past them.

[ OTTO Motors ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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