Boston Dynamics’ clever Handle robot gets an autonomous co-worker

The idea of robots successfully collaborating might ordinarily send a shiver down your spine, but in the case of Boston Dynamics’ Handle robot, there appears to be little to worry about.

The talented engineers behind the likes of Atlas and Spot have also been working diligently on Handle, a highly versatile wheel-based robot designed for handling boxes weighing up to 33 pounds (15 kg), whether in a warehouse or for loading and unloading trucks and shipping containers.

A video released last year showed the autonomous robot strutting its stuff, selecting boxes using deep-learning vision software, picking them up using a suction cup at the end of an extendable arm, and stacking them neatly on a stationary pallet. It was all very impressive.

Now, though, Massachusetts-based Boston Dynamics has partnered with Otto Motors, a specialist in industrial mobile robots, for a demonstration designed to show the future of warehouse automation where autonomous robots work with each other to perform multiple tasks.

In a new video (below) released this week, we see Handle once again grabbing boxes, but this time it places them on one of Otto’s low-slung robots — the Otto 1500 — which we can describe as a kind of high-tech pallet on wheels. When the pallet is full, the machine automatically rolls off to another part of the warehouse, leaving Handle to select the next lot of boxes for another of Otto’s robots.

“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,” Kevin Blankespoor, Boston Dynamics vice president of product engineering, said in a release. “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.”

Ryan Gariepy, chief technology officer and co-founder of Otto Motors, said it was “exciting to engage with other cutting-edge robotics companies like Boston Dynamics,” with the prospect of applying their respective technologies to “a whole new realm of applications.”

Handle and Otto 1500 may lack the wow factor of, say, Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot, which last year showed off its parkour skills, but this latest demonstration is nevertheless impressive for the skill and level of autonomy involved, and at the same time provides a glimpse of how most warehouse work could be performed before long.

After years of work on its range of robots, Boston Dynamics is starting to look at ways to put them to work in a commercial setting. While Handle appears well on its way to full-time work, another of its creations, Spot, recently started work on an oil and gas production vessel in Norway as part of a trial.

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