A new robot could soon replace humans in warehouses operated by
and others. And if you’re in the market for a small robotic dog, you can buy one now for about the price of a midsize car.
Boston Dynamics, a robotics company owned by Japan’s
is working on a robot called Handle that it hopes to launch in the next 18 months, said Marc Raibert, founder and CEO of Boston Dynamics. Raibert was speaking on stage at the WSJ CEO Council in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.
More than 1 trillion boxes are shipped globally, he said, creating a vast market for robots that can handle complex warehouse logistics and shipping tasks.
Handle has a payload capacity of 33 lbs., and can reach up to nine feet. It’s designed for one thing: to move boxes in the logistics world. “It picks up a box, travels with it, and puts it down,” he said, and it can unload a truck or build a pallet. That would make it far more useful than robots currently used by Amazon (ticker: AMZN) and other logistics firms, which have relatively narrow applications within warehouses.
“We’re testing it with the people you’d imagine,” said Raibert, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who launched the company in 1992. Boston Dymanics was acquired by Google in 2013, and was sold by Alphabet (GOOGL) to SoftBank in 2017 for an undisclosed amount.
Will robots like Handle eventually replace all of Amazon’s warehouse and logistics workers? Probably not. The company employs over 650,000 full and part-time workers, many of them at its warehouses and fulfillment centers. Robots may displace some of them, but Amazon will still need workers for complex or unexpected tasks. And technical hurdles abound, including developing an autonomous robot that can do its own mapping and solve problems like getting around obstacles without help from a human.
“Automation is in no way replacing jobs,” said Beth Galetti, senior vice president of human resources at Amazon, in a follow-on session at the conference. But workers need to learn how to work “in partnership” with automation. She said Amazon is building classrooms in fulfillment centers to train workers and move them up from warehouse jobs.
The number one reason that employees stay or leave is whether they have access to “meaningful work,” Galetii said.
Today’s robots tend to be semiautonomous: they’re controlled by a human with a remote control or by another system.
Raibert demonstrated Spot on stage at the conference, showing off a few of its tricks. Spot is a four-legged robot that has its own brain, sensors, and computers. It didn’t bark, fetch, or sit, but it did a few doggy-like things: walking around, descending some steps, holding its head still while its body moved—something Raibert called “chicken-head” mode.
It’s being tested and used at construction sites, electric utilities, and refineries to read gauges and collect data in places that are dangerous or unreachable for humans. “Most refineries were built years ago and aren’t digitized,” Raibert said. Spot can get up on the catwalk of a refinery to read a methane gauge, for example, eliminating risk to humans.
Drones can handle some of those tasks, but they usually can’t fly for more than 30 minutes and have small payloads. Spot can carry up to 45 pounds on its back, he said.
Will Spot replace Rudolph on Santa’s team? Probably not this Christmas. The wait to get Spot under your tree would be 45 days, Raibert said, though it is being outfitting with “Christmas skins” and changing lights. It’s about the price of midsize car—presumably less than a
(TSLA) Model S (starting at $75,000) but more than a Camry ($24,000) from
Write to Daren Fonda at [email protected]