Cargo-handling robots from three US companies

From “The last pieces of warehouse automation will soon be in place” (The Economist):

The robotics division of Honeywell, a large American technology company, has come up with a vehicle-sized unit that fits onto the back of a lorry. It has a large arm fitted with suction cups which can pick up several boxes at a time and then feed them onto a conveyor belt, or knock down a wall of boxes and sweep them onto the conveyor. An individual human worker can unload between 600 and 1,200 boxes an hour. Honeywell hopes that, once its robot is perfected, a single crew chief will be able to supervise the simultaneous unloading of three or four lorries, each at rates of up to 1,500 boxes an hour.


In Massachusetts, a firm called Boston Dynamics takes a different approach from Honeywell’s. Boston Dynamics is famous in the wider world for an acrobatic humanoid robot called Atlas, and for Spot, a robot that resembles a dog and is now on sale as a device for monitoring what is happening in factories and other large spaces. The firm’s good-handling system, Stretch, is, however, the first it has custom-built for a particular task.

Stretch is smaller and more mobile than Honeywell’s robot, and is able, according to Kevin Blankespoor, Boston Dynamics’ general manager of warehouse robotics, to move easily from one lorry to another, or to a different part of a site altogether. It sports a single arm festooned with sensors and a suction gripper able to handle boxes weighing up to about 25kg. Unlike Honeywell’s system, Stretch can already manage the trick of examining a wall of boxes, working out their sizes and shapes, and choosing which to pick up first. It is, though, slower. The aim is that it will be able to handle 800 cases an hour.

A third contender, Dill, is made by the Pickle Robot Company, also based in Massachusetts. Andrew Meyer, Pickle’s boss, believes Dill has an edge over the competition because Pickle’s engineers have focused on the robot’s ability to handle messy trailers with irregular loads. This is not just a matter of machine vision and an ability to work out where boxes are, but also of understanding the laws of physics, and therefore how particular objects will behave. That helps Dill decide which is the best box to pick up next, and how to deal with it as speedily as possible without dropping it.

In particular, Dill is designed for what Mr Meyer terms “centaur operation”, in which human and robot collaborate, rather than the human’s role being merely supervisory. Dill is skilled at spotting problems it cannot deal with and then calling in human assistance. It can handle 98% of cases on its own, Mr Meyer claims—though it has problems with things like damaged goods and unexpected objects. The upshot is an arrangement which, he says, has a maximum capacity of 1,600 packages an hour, with a realistic average of 1,000.

The next task, which all three companies are now engaged in, is to run the unloading process in reverse by using robots to load lorries in the first place. Besides simply lugging boxes around, this also involves working out how to stack them efficiently.

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