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Handle Robot Reimagined for Logistics

BostonDynamics · Youtube · 393 HN points · 1 HN comments
HN Theater has aggregated all Hacker News stories and comments that mention BostonDynamics's video "Handle Robot Reimagined for Logistics".
Youtube Summary
Handle is a mobile manipulation robot designed for logistics. Handle autonomously performs mixed SKU pallet building and depalletizing after initialization and localizing against the pallets. The on-board vision system on Handle tracks the marked pallets for navigation and finds individual boxes for grasping and placing.

When Handle places a boxes onto a pallet, it uses force control to nestle each box up against its neighbors. The boxes used in the video weigh about 5 Kg (11 lbs), but the robot is designed to handle boxes up to (15 Kg) (33 lb). This version of Handle works with pallets that are 1.2 m deep and 1.7 m tall (48 inches deep and 68 inches tall).
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Art is in the eye of the beholder.

Just like it ain't only "mundane" work that is being replaced [0].

Imho right now most of humanity is still in denial about the consequences of these changes, just like with climate change.

But in the long-term automation will leave us with a whole ton of "surplus humans" that will struggle to find any meaningful economic activity to engage in to finance their own survival.

Right now a whole economy exists around these mundane jobs: All of the warehouse workers [1], delivery personnel, and a ton of others do their "mundane" jobs in the logistics chain, because that's what they can do. For many people, their driver's license is the only real qualification they have. But in the long term, not even a pilot's license will be a qualification that ensures employment [2].

What happens to these people once autonomous driving becomes adopted on a larger scale? Are they all gonna start working at Boston Dynamics, creating more autonomous tools? Will they all learn to code and start writing apps? Will they become successful artists? I seriously doubt that.

Will they work in newly created auxilareily industries? Maybe a few of them, but the "new jobs created" from this will never make up the number of jobs lost because the change to automation is also an increase in efficiency of productivity, meaning that the same work can now be done with way less effort.




By purely speculating, just like the article, I guess everything that can't be replaced by robots (or let me reword it: isn't as fun without humans) will be left for humans. Meaning arts, entertainment, sports and artisan products. Probably influencing too and whatever jobs our fledgling mind-control apparatuses require. Sure not everyone can make the change so I guess they'll end up doing maintenance work or something, social services or just sit on their ass playing video games. I don't think the problem is as bad as it seems, I mean I can't recall anyone complaining about doing less mundane work. In my mind the problem isn't that there isn't enough "work" for everyone. We can make up more work given enough time. It's the redistribution of the wealth of the owners of these mega corporations that is the most puzzling problem. Especially if all the wealth falls to only a couple of those companies.

Going forward I think whatever that is what makes us human will be our most prized commodity. In a world full of synthetic products it's the ones that are real which stand out. And if we can't tell the difference between synthetics and reals, well. I guess we are screwed then. Perhaps it's just the next step in our evolution to become one with the machine, legacy flesh-versions will be left as curiosities, put in museums.

Imho this isn't just pure speculation, it's simply extrapolating trends that have already been going on for centuries.

And one of the most dangerous non-answers to it is this:

> Sure not everyone can make the change so I guess they'll end up doing maintenance work or something, social services or just sit on their ass playing video games.

Because it assumes that societies will properly respond to it with social reforms accounting for these changes. But unlike the automation trend, the social changes that need to accompany it are a far cry away from even being recognized as a requirement.

In that context I do not see a future where people without a job will be "sitting at home playing video games", it's far more likely that people will be living on the street and won't even be able to afford food, because their gig-economy job got replaced by a fleet of corporate bots, just like most other menial and low-income jobs.

Will such a society recognize that not everybody can find a meaningful [0] place to work? Will it maybe force people, to work underpaid just to keep up the appearance of "pulling them bootstraps"? I mean, there's already a whole lot of that going on.

Maybe it's just the pessimist in me, but I just don't see the kind of "utopia" emerging from this many people imagine it to be. At least not in the way we are currently going about it, where the societal impact of massive tech-advances is regularly relegated to something that will be fixed post-release.


Mar 29, 2019 · 372 points, 242 comments · submitted by oedmarap
Two wheeled dynamically balanced warehouse robot like that is completely unnecessary complication.

Boston Dynamics is developing amazing tech but they are demoing robots for tasks that are better with 4 wheels. Dynamically balanced walkers inside are niche application.

Smarter robot hands and 4-wheeled robot movers are where the markets and money is. Boston dynamics may be moving towards that direction but they still like to show the cools stuff they can't find markets for.

This was my reaction too, but after I thought about it for a second it seems only half right.

For a device leaning into shelves to grab things, being dynamically balanced might be useful. Like a racing sailboat with a movable keel or ballast. But you could do that with a three wheeled design.

I bet there's also a static version of this bot with three wheels, slightly larger footprint, where the battery pack is situated over the third wheel for leverage.

But the swinging battery pack? In theory it reduces the footprint of the bot, but any time the bot is trying to grab a package, the battery is moving. Which means you can't let another robot or human enter that space. So either you have a very very complicated calculation of what areas of the warehouse are 'empty' at any moment, or your logistics program has to treat the robot like it's its worst-case footprint at all times. At which point you might as well make it static. Right?

Seems like it wouldn't be too hard to just put a cover over the batteries entire range of motion.
OSHA would want a light curtain like on virtually every other machine in a factory
Is this physical safety margin a substantially different problem than human-operated machinery, though? You don't want to get too close to a live forklift, either.
> Two wheeled dynamically balanced warehouse robot like that is completely unnecessary complication.

I had the same intuition, but then I remembered the toy I'm playing with - the spectacularly unstable 4-rotor copter that could not even take off without an onboard computer actively keeping it level all the freaking time. And it's rock solid almost no matter what.

As technology changes, our intuitions must follow.

4-copter has use for the balancing and has replaced complex mechanical flybar with cheaper electronics.

2-wheeler is not better or more stable than 4-wheeler and requires more maintenance.

And 4 wheeler will be cheaper.
Cheaper and will not automatically fall over in the case of a power failure.
Or a bug! I assume it will also consume less power.
Are you 100% sure? 4 wheeler needs twice as many wheels and a larger frame. A little controller and imu is pretty cheap by comparison.
Not just a little controller, a counterbalancing mechanism with gyroscopes, etc. Versus a motorised trolley.
What do you mean a counterbalancing mechanism? Multiple gyroscopes? It's just a cheap IMU (includes gyrometer) and an additional control output in their controller.
> a counterbalancing mechanism

if the 4-wheeled version must also have the same level of acceleration and speed of picking up, won't it also need a counterbalancing mechanism? It just won't need the "balancing algorithm", but will need a way to balance the arm swinging out.

Also, the counterbalancing mechanism is written with software, so once perfected, it's "free" to deploy. The weight could be the actual batteries, so no added extra weight!

A car accelerates way faster.

Do you see cars with huge counterweights?

And no, it is not free to deploy by any means. Any moving, huge, swinging parts will cause expensive problems. Remember your hard disks.

A car does not have an arm that picks up heavy objects. The ones that do (crane trucks) need outriggers and jacks to stabilise the machine and stop any motion before they can extend their arm.
These robots go only up to 15 Kg according to their designers.

I would not call 15 Kg "heavy". I can carry that myself on a single arm...

Fork lifts (no outriggers), optionally with a crane arm/jib, are normally used to move goods inside warehouses.

Of course it depends on the weight of what you are moving, but it doesn't seem like the 2 wheeled robots in the video can actually move "heavy" weights.

You need to consider also possible issues and maintenance.

Wheel issues (typical):

1) flat tire (if the wheel is not "solid" only)

2) axle bearing

Controller+swinging counterweight:

1) a gazillion electronic components, connectors and contacts, bearings as well, the actuator for the swinging, etc., etc.

What happens if the environment is a bit humid?

For the wheel, a little rust, for the complex electronic system?

And BTW, we can save 25% by using only three wheels ...

I think it is like LHC, core concept may be waste of resources for some however the benefit here is research and development on materials, sensors, engines, power supply, automation so on. At least better than arms race (I know that DARPA funds some robots).
> I know that DARPA funds some robots

DARPA funding is not necessarily violent. One can argue that the current explosion in self-driving cars is due to the DARPA challenges in the 2000s.

DARPA's mission is "to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security". Depending on how you view national security, you can make some easy arguments for DARPA investing money into sectors that help increase the nation's economy.
Maybe an obsolete objection. "Just use coal for god's sake. All these electronics - bah!"

I think they have solved 2-wheel control. Lets move on.

They may be working around Deka patents.
I'm not sure that these intuitions are actually correct. For example, while it seems obvious that a four wheel solution should be faster and cheaper, that is only really true if you assume that software and controls algorithms are expensive. This robot needs fewer wheels, tires, frame structure, and drive motors than a conventional four wheel design, and the ability to lean into the direction of motion gives higher acceleration limits, increasing speed. Just like a bike is cheaper and higher performance than a recumbent tricycle, this might actually be cheaper and higher performance than something more conventional. If not today, Boston Dynamics seems to be betting that it will become so in the future.
Nitpick: recumbents are faster.
Interesting. I just looked more into this, and it seems to depend on what performance regime we are measuring speed in. It seems like recumbants are always heavier, which makes them worse on hills, but extremely optimized recumbants with aerodynamic shells are lower drag on flat ground. From an agility perspective, uprights always win, which is probably the closer analogy for "cycle speed" that Handle cares about.

Thanks for teaching me something :)

The main difference is that on an upright bike one cannot exert more force on the pedals that the body weight, while on a recumbent the upper body is locked into the chair and pushes against the back.
Not true. It's a completely standard technique to pull down on the handlebars to exert more force than your body weight on the pedals. Watch any video of a pro cyclist climbing hills, or sprinting on a straight.
Basically right, except for one detail: Heavier recumbent bikes are slower to get up hills, due to being heavier. But that extra weight actually makes them faster going downhill. Not enough to be faster overall if the power source is still one person pedaling, but still.

Source - I was part of a project in college that built a recumbent tandem bike. We built the frame out of large-diameter steel tubing, and it was quite heavy. I followed it on a normal bicycle several times while testing. Even with 2 people pedaling, it was easy to keep up with going up hills. It would tend to get away from me going downhill though.

The counterweight swinging seems like a major hazard. Also, I am curious what stability issues it will have if there is a sudden hazard appearing (let's say person walk in front of it).
Cover it with a hard plastic skirt at the max range of motion.
>The counterweight swinging seems like a major hazard.

Seems like an easily enough problem. Basically every car out there has reverse sensors...

You are assuming that there are people around to be a liability. I am assuming there will be no people in this warehouse.
The people will always be there to restart the system and clean up the accidents. Robots have to be designed in that in mind.
Restarting systems and cleaning up seem like jobs that can be/have been automated.
Judging by the video, the swinging weight is used to provide all sorts of acceleration: forwards, back, and to lift the payload.

This is a smart usage of a dead weight (batteries) that makes all the other motors smaller and lighter.

Whenever I see these Boston Dynamics video's I have many unanswered questions about the underlying control systems.

This one for example has an organic birdlike head motion. Is that pre-programmed or a natural outcome of their control system dynamics. The MIT technologyreview page says "Each one is created with carefully pre-programmed movements and will take many, many takes to get right before it’s shared."

So is it a sequence of individual actions: align to pallet using registration cards -> move forward with reaching distance -> detect box position -> use box picking algorithm to pick box -> backup fixed precalculated distance -> turn 90 degrees -> move forward to destination etc. This would be a brittle solution that has to be reprogrammed for the next task.

Or is it a more general closed loop solution: Theres a pile of boxes there. Move it here. Use your sensors to plan a trajectory and sequence of actions to accomplish the goal.

That's what I want to know.

I have no doubt that organic motion was deliberately designed that way to impress their intended audience.

Yes, it makes sense to mimic nature sometimes. But when it comes to robotic manipulators, loaders, etc - there's absolutely no reason to copy biological systems limited by strength, speed, or joint mobility. They seem to be deliberately going for that uncanny valley effect.

Eventually, someone is going to admit it. Until then, this is hugely entertaining.

I think it may very well be a natural outcome of inverse kinematics and PID loops in a noisy (uneven floor, uneven loads, etc, etc) environment
yes, natural movements are approximately energy-minimizing. The optimal control algorithms used by BD probably have energy minimization as their main objective.
IK + PID is not how these robots work. These robots use MPC and trajectory optimization, which should absorb minor disturbances just fine.
Could you elaborate? The floors appear to be perfectly level, and load weight isn't changing after it's been picked up - so where's all this excessive locomotion coming from?
I agree that the conditions in the video are very ideal as you mention.

Perturbations do exist and they add up in the PID feedback loop. For example you can see in the video that the way each box is handled varies and that the robot reorients itself to pick/drop boxes.

Consider a simpler 1 dimensional example: (warning, loud). You can observe the system adjusting to the hits by the person, but also when left alone it will have to adjust to accumulating externalities like gravity. Also note the natural/biological looking swaying motion that results.

Thank you for explaining this. Still, while this presents a very interesting scientific problem, the engineer in me wonders why these feedback loops are needed for an automaton navigating a 2D terrain and carrying solid objects (unless they plan on tossing/catching boxes), why two wheels with that giant swinging counterweight? What's next, a unicycle?

You know, sometimes you see a solution, and it's just so elegant... This isn't elegant, or brilliant. This is an attempt to solve self-imposed, artificial problems.

P.S. people who liked your pendulum video (I did), might also enjoy this drone pole acrobatics video:

After looking at the video more closely, I agree with you. It looks like slightly underdamped damped response in a PID feedback loop. Funny, how it ends up looking like an ostrich.
> This one for example has an organic birdlike head motion. Is that pre-programmed or a natural outcome of their control system dynamics.

Similar problems are likely to elicit similar solutions.

That’s the point of the question. Is this the result of convergent evolution or are Boston Dynamics simply mimicking nature’s solution? Even worse, what if the bird-like head motion has no functional value for the posed problem?
imho the motion looks entirely like a simple counter-balancing solution to keep the robot upright and the box steady. It does look like a whole-body solution, not a per-joint PID. Others have mentioned they use MPC which makes a lot of sense here. I think it's just "convergent evolution" if you want to put it that way.
I mean, isn’t that kind of Boston Dynamics’ shtick? When have any of their impressive demos ended up being useful in the real world?
Such discouraging words. Like literally everything a human has ever made, it takes _time_ to get it production ready.
They’ve been around for 27 years. BigDog was 14 years ago. Maybe “production ready” is not really a part of their company culture?
just wait for the next war. BigDogs and SpotMinis everywhere
I don't know much about control, but apparently Emanuel Todorov knows about the basics of Boston Dynamics control in this video around 14 minutes. The paper is this one I don't understand most of it, but it may help if you have some knowledge. But from the few things I understood, not much is programmed.

Also, I'm watching some lectures for a MIT underactuated robotics class ( The professor says in one of the videos that the people who end up creating Boston Dynamics also took that course. From what I watched until now, nothing is explicitly programmed (by some vague definition of "explicitly programmed"), you just find some inputs that makes the dynamics of the model behave the way you want.

Almost certainly the birdlike movement is the outcome of the robot dynamics, and not some hardcoded rules. But things like avoiding hitting obstacles or estimating the distance, I think that needs to be explicitly programmed (and then used as input to the model such as "move the end effector to that position").

Surprisingly birdlike in their form and movement. Interesting to ponder the convergence of evolved and human-designed balance and bodily physics.

Also: Kept waiting for some guy to come in and try to kick it over. I thought that was Boston Dynamics' signature move in these promo videos...

They actually did a big mea culpa last year and promised not to shove their robots anymore!

Robots rights or something.

Except that swinging counterweight gives it overtones of a 10-foot tall wasp. These are quite possibly the creepiest robots I've ever seen.
My first thought was the velociraptors from Jurassic Park.
YES! Very disappointed there was no robot kicking
A robot cassowary sounds more scary than a live cassowary
Hmm, for now I'd take my chances with the robot, real cassowaries can pack quite a punch[1].


Yes indeed they do!
I hope you don't regret this comment when the robot revolution happens! :)
Totally! I was surprised there wasn't any abuse! Hitting it with a hockey stick, smacking the box out of its grip, not letting it finish the job, throwing banana skins under its feet, and of course the solid kicks to its rear.

When the robot revolution comes, those guys at Boston Dynamics are definitely going to be the first up against the wall, without doubt.

This robot looks unpredictable and dangerous for any worker that would be in the area. Other point: as a unicycle rider, I would suggest this robot to wear a helmet.
Regarding your 2nd point (which I assume was meant as a joke) - as a fellow unicycle rider and teacher for over 25 years, the first thing one learns is how to dismount safely, feet first and hands outwards in preparation to hit the ground for those extreme cases. My worst crashes were when my shoelaces got caught in the pedals (only once many years ago but since then I always check that my shoelaces are stowed), hopping/tricking, or off-roading. A warehouse environment in comparison is rather sterile and the robot probably won't be performing any tricks so I think the designers can safely forego a helmet.
FTA: Although the technology is impressive, we’re still a long way from it being deployed in an actual warehouse, especially around humans. That would involve a level of complexity that robots haven't yet mastered.
The robot is no doubt amazing, but I do wonder why they didn't make it with 4 wheels. I am not robot designer, but I would have to think making it with 4 wheels would have been way easier.
BD is a technology company. I don't think they set out to just build robots that can move boxes. I bet this is a stepping stone towards building an advance machine that can do more than that.
I assume it's a combination:

* If the robots need to "reach" for items, you have to figure out balance/stability issues regardless of how many wheels you have.

* The fewer the wheels used, the smaller the footprint of the robot.

It needs to swing that counterweight around maybe?
If I had to guess, the counterweight area also contains a big bulky lithium ion or lipo battery pack. Perhaps if they've determined they need it to carry around a 35 kilogram battery pack, they're accomplishing two purposes by also putting the battery in the counterweight location.
The thing is: that counterweight looks very heavy, but the boxes being carried look fairly light (something that a human could lift). It doesn't really seem like there's any reason they needed to design this robot to have two wheels and a counterweight. As others have said, the counterweight makes the robot more unpredictable and dangerous. What happens when someone steps behind the robot, and the robot needs to swing the counterweight back to keep its balance? Does it hit the person with that massive weight or fall flat?
I imagine the same thing that happens when a person steps behind a forklift, and the forklift operator backs up without looking.

Static doesn't necessarily mean safer. But the article also notes these aren't intended to share space with humans yet.

I suspect that this is an exercise in learning how build a two-wheel balancer that doesn't "hunt" around the vertical position. A normal two-wheel balancing robot is continuously controlling to keep the robot at an unstable equilibrium point (the "inverted pendulum" problem). The only actuators it has to do that are the wheels, so a normal two-wheel balancer is continuously rocking back and forth as it controls for vertical stability. The counter-weight gives a second actuator to control for equilibrium, so that it doesn't have to use the wheels for small corrections.

Also, recall from freshman physics that the pendulum problem is non-linear. Most balancing robots linearize the problem around the stable point. Which means if the robot gets far away from the equilibrium point, you either have to switch to a different controller or live with the consequences. One of the consequences is the robot racing off to the horizon as it tries to get the wheels under the CG again. (Which may happen anyway whether or not you switch controllers.)

Thus, my standard advice to all newbie robot builders: Your first robot should have a low enough mass that a missing semicolon will not punch a hole in your living room wall.

If this kind of thing is interesting to you, MIT 6.832 Underactuated Robotics by Russ Tedrake is posted on YouTube going a few years back, and the Spring 2019 version is being live-streamed every Tuesday and Thursday, picking up again next Tuesday after spring break.

It depends on the target tradeoffs.

4 wheels can be inherently statically stable but requires more space and requires more energy when running (counter-intuitive, but if your balance algorithm is efficient, you use less energy wheeling around on 2 than on 4 because you can basically play games with gravity to get some acceleration tradeoffs... And you have half the number of powered wheels, assuming you're 4-wheel drive).

If they solve the hard math, the end result may very well be a more performant machine (though as someone else in thread has noted, depending on the overall goals, a zero-wheels statically-mounted arm could be better still).

BD's machines actually have terrible energetics. They use very heavy and inefficient hydraulic actuation. I can't find a source for it, but IIRC Atlas has a specific resistance of around ~40, compared to a human which is around 0.2. I don't know an RC Car is at, but direct drive motors are quite efficient.

Whatever BD's angle is, it's not efficiency.

>This robot looks unpredictable and dangerous for any worker

They will just have to remove the people to make it more efficient.

Exactly. Plus I imaging that once they get it down, these things will move even faster and with more precision.
Someone posted an automated warehouse here a couple of months back. This looks like the one:

The robots were above the boxes instead of below the shelves (maybe to beat an Amazon patent? I dunno.) But that warehouse looks like nightmare fuel for a maintenance crew.

Is that the warehouse that burned to the ground? I remember being both sad and laughing at the hubris of building such an inaccessible, complicated warehouse.

It is! How did I forget that. How do firefighters move through a building with no floors?

> The blaze began high in the warehouse and was so difficult to reach that firefighters had to cut holes in the roof, according to Neil Odin, chief officer at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service. A sprinkler system only contained the fire in its early stages. It took more than 200 people to quell the flames.

Fascinating video. Youtube suggested as the next video and that one has at 2:52 what seems to be a maintenance vehicle placed over the same rails as the robots, so that might explain how the maintenance crew can do its job (the one in the video is labeled "Recovery 04", so my guess is that the main purpose of this one is to allow maintenance workers to rescue stuck robots).
that's true for a lot of industrial robots. It's a lot harder to make a robot that can work alongside humans than one that doesn't need to.
there's got to be some pretty funny fails video
I have a few from my robotics projects at NASA, not sure if I can share publicly though unfortunately.
I fell like you couldn't have humans in the same room unless they were switched off.
There is a TED talk by one of Boston Dynamics Engineers where they demo the SpotMini robotic dog. The engineer tasks the robot to fetch him a glass of water. The assistant switches the robot to autonomous mode and the robot fetches the glass of water.

When the engineer is approached he tells the audience that the assistant just switched the robot back to manual for safety reasons.

I think no one could have noticed and I like that kind of honesty. I also found it telling that the people who built the robot have respect for its dangers.

I don't think that's telling at all. That's standard protocol.
I think that was a carefully orchestrated action for PR.
It's absolutely insane to me that this thing works with suction caps and isn't designed to actually pick up the boxes by supporting the weight from the bottom. That would seem like such a basic requirement for any boxes with relatively heavy payloads.
Packing boxes correctly appears to be a simpler problem then having the machine support the box's bottom (because it is still solved by humans).
It doesn't seem difficult to add a small forklift as "arms" to support the bottom after it has been lifted up a little. Even a person would have to get the box up an inch before supporting the bottom.
I would think the boxes have to be spec'd to contain the suspended weight of whatever is inside them anyway. I doubt they can depend on always being supported from the bottom throughout the whole delivery chain.
Where exactly in the process of delivery are the majority of boxes not being supported from the bottom?
I'd think the chances would go up substantially after they are removed from the truck and broken out of the palette, and before they are unpacked and the contents distributed.
The vast majority of human lifts that start from a belt or cramped shelf - in sorting, loading, and last mile. Humans will sometimes rotate the box to center the load over an edge or regrasp from the bottom - but any given box is definitely going to experience moments with no support from the bottom.
Take a look at the bottom of a cardboard box next time you get something delivered - it almost certainly will be stamped with exactly what the burst strength, etc, specifications are. This is big stuff in the packaging industry.

I have spent far too much of my life in a warehouse doing this robot's job. A job that according to every pundit from the "smart" to the stupid was supposed to be gone tomorrow. Mostly I'm just disappointed in how clownish all those futurists look.

Completely retooling the society after 70 years of postwar infrastructure is going to take more than anyone would willingly sacrifice. You would have to bomb everything more than a few years old flat. At no point will it be feasible to keep leaving major investment in business and industry tied to the promises of modernizing through bleeding edge technology. The world is so vast and involves such a colossal distribution of existing resources. So many of the systems here are only functioning through broad and cheap standards, like containers, rail gauges, ship sizes.

I don't want my job. I want a machine built to put me out of it for good. I have been saying that along with a generation of workers told robots were coming for their jobs since the day i was hired. That was fifteen years ago.

We need a Manhattan project for the basic tools of industry. Now. There are thousands of novel or unproven methods of doing the most basic forms of labor our economy is based on, and we are leaving the creation of things that need to be ISO standard across the surface of the earth in order to succeed to entrepreneurs and startups and scholastic vanity.

The modern technological landscape across all disciplines looks terrifyingly similar to the cambrian explosion, which produced so many things, at such a cost of living suffering, that did not survive what came after. I'm afraid our civilization might have run out of low-hanging fruit.

To me that is the line of demarcation between the "developed world" and whatever precedes it. I don't think what is beyond that is peaceful. It necessarily undermines the infrastructure the whole society is founded on.

Serious question. What would you do for work if we did get a robot to do your job?
What would I need to work?

Look, we're rapidly approaching a point where all human needs (food, shelter, etc) can be handled by automation. If we reach that point, why do people need to have jobs? Why can't we turn our lives towards something better?

Many retired people return to work after retirement out of boredom. Humans need tasks, be it for money or purpose. If we arent trying to attain food or shelter due to automation, what's the point? Not everyone takes well to hobbies. It might be great several generations in the future, but it's going to be a culture shock for those raised on working.
Let's imagine a future where all farming has become fully automated. I'm sure some people will still want to live on farms (although perhaps not the commerical sized ones we've got now), and grow crops, raise chickens, etc. But, they get to do so without the pressure of having to succeed or they starve.

Maybe some people actually like that stress and pressure to succeed (lest they starve); takes all kinds.

>If we reach that point, why do people need to have jobs? Why can't we turn our lives towards something better?

Because we will likely still be living in capitalist societies in which people increasingly unable to provide value to the marketplace due to automation will still need income to survive, and no one implementing that automation has any intention of doing so in order to usher in some kind of post-scarcity collectivist utopia.

Automation exists to allow the ownership class to reap the benefits of labor without the burden of compensating human employees, not to free the labor classes from having to work.

This is not necessarily true. See: The washing machine, which gave people an average of ten hours of free-time more each week when it was invented. And countless other inventions that automate away manual labor and are accessible to average people.
The washing machine and other household appliances only allowed women to reallocate their labor time to the market rather than at home.
Do they?
That isn't accurate. The electric washing machine was first invented and sold en masse in 1928. It wasn't until seven to eight decades later that women started participating in the labor force more broadly. Until then, and even now, the washing machine contributes a significant amount to extra leisure time. And indeed, Americans have a lot of leisure time. That is how we are able to spend 35 hours a week on average on watching television. (Source: Nielsen report on television consumption)
Seven to eight decades after 1928 is 1998-2008. Female participation in the labor force grew significantly prior to that, though the main impetus was probably the Second World War.
Only 43.3 percent of women worked outside the home in 1970. It'd be some time yet after that before most of them did. The point was that your argument against the washing machine was incorrect. Those 10-15 hours a week were actual gains for the working class. Women didn't jump into the labor force right after that machine was created and sold, after all.
It was an enabling factor but not a causative factor.

Another question: what proportion of homes had washing machines by year starting in 1928? Large proportions of American homes weren’t even electrified in 1928.

It is in their own interest that the inequality doesn't grow past a certain point. Even an army of robots can do very little against a hungry mob.
Please, let's not ever find out how a hungry mob fares against a emotionless robot army. I don't think it would be pretty.
Right now the robot/automation is not cheap enough/easy enough for individual people to operate it. If these become reality the traditional capitalist societies will change and it won't be necessary for people to provide value to other human to survive.
Capitalism is just an abstraction for the human condition.
Well, I’m a working robotics engineer in the Silicon Valley area and I am trying to design robotics for a post scarcity collectivist utopia. At home I do research in to functional 3D printed robotics and I operate a YouTube channel and discussion website [1] to pull people together so we can discuss collectively owned automated communities. I’m a fan of Murray Bookchin and want to live in a collectively owned automated farming commune. I’ve just taken a new job on an actual farm as a robotics engineer, and we’re going to try to build automation for farming.

I’m also a writer and I study the intersection of automation and society.

So while it’s true that most automation engineers don’t think this way, some of us do. :-)


I'm guessing you're a Cory Doctorow fan too? I thought Walkaway was very interesting, though not his best novel.
I don’t read a lot (YouTube lectures are my thing) but I’ve liked what I’ve seen of Cory Doctorows work. Someone has recommended Walkaway to me.
Holy cow that's awesome.
It's not the engineers I'm talking about so much as business owners, stockholders and politicians, the people actually writing the laws and making the decisions about how automation is going to shape the future.

The problem with seeing automation as a means to liberate people from capitalism and free them for intellectual pursuits (a noble and laudable goal) is that it exists to serve capitalist ends. Amazon, for instance, is definitely not automating for the benefit of humanity. They just don't want to pay people.

Although it is good to know someone is thinking about it. I really worry that, at scale, mass employment won't be addressed until it actually threatens the status quo.

I absolutely agree with you. I don’t think there’s much I can do to stop what’s currently got so much momentum. The capitalists will capitalize and the workers will be treated as tools to be taken on and used when needed to fill in the gaps, and quality of life for many people will continue to be low even as some of us travel to other worlds.

But the technology, while not liberating, will become more accessible. And I think a lot of people, just as in many decades past, are interested in something beyond bare capitalism.

My hope is that the collectivists can make progress in the coming decades too. We can develop our own open source alternatives to the machinery of dystopia. We can abandon intellectual property as a concept and ensure that when we labor for new development, the knowledge we gain is accessible to everyone who wants to liberate themselves.

And just as a group of hobbyists and corporations built Linux, perhaps we could build our own alternative to dystopia.

Politically right now I think we need unity and we need to stop trying to use the government to solve our problems. The government is a tool of force and force cannot be the way we build utopia except perhaps as defense against those who would have it shut down.

Hmm, certainly Amazon doesn't want to pay anyone, robot, company or human more than they have to to do a job. Does that benefit humanity? For it's customers and shareholders yes, for the replaced warehouse worker, maybe not. But even that can be argued.
This might be good point to mention the only 2020 presidential candidate who is talking about how UBI could address this seemingly inevitable future that is closer than we think.

Andrew Yang. See his discussion with students at Georgetown Univ.

or for a longer exposition of his ideas see

UBI represents a continuation of capitalism where the machinery of our world is still under elite control. I’d rather see a candidate that will provide seed funding for cooperatives. Way more liberatory than cash handouts from our rulers.
Isn't seed funding for cooperatives also basically a cash handout from our rulers?
Yes, though much more directed than UBI. Credit Unions are well positioned to provide loans for coops. The government could provide some backing for those loans to stimulate growth. That’s way, way less intervention than a UBI.
What would I need to work?

Because humans want more than just basic human needs addressed?

Technologically maybe, politically most countries are still very very far away.
I’ve researched this extensively and I’m convinced we could have done this in the developed world starting 100 years ago, but individuals in a position of power preferred to accumulate wealth themselves rather than distribute earnings equitably.

So I don’t believe an automated utopia is going to happen automatically. We’ve got to work to create corporate structures that naturally reward all of the workers instead of a few at the top. Cooperatively run companies are one way to do this. If the major companies of our world were cooperatives, a wide swath of the population would gain the wealth our world is increasingly producing.

But technology alone won’t solve the problem. We need to intentionally structure our society in a way that makes this socialist utopia possible. That’s what I study and I’m trying to figure it out. I’m also a robotics engineer.

It's going to be a rough transition, but it will happen.

There's going to be a tipping point where the distribution of wealth is so unbelievably bad that voters will finally start voting for policies that will redistribute more equitably.

That tipping point may pass by the time enough voters self educate or educate each other about inequality in the distribution of wealth, at which point revolution becomes more likely.
I don’t think voting could solve the problem because I believe the problem is concentration of power in corporations and governments. How could the government, which is captured by wealthy interests, ever bring about liberation of the people? The history of liberation movements is that they are suppressed by governments.
There are elected governments that are not beholden to the specific moneyed interests that want to keep control of robots. If we reach the threshold of post-scarcity, where robots build robots and the only barrier against duplicates-at-cost is patents or copyrights, then some countries will reject the intellectual property norms promoted by wealthy developed countries. It has happened already with drug patents. The people of Johannnesburg may get cheap robots a generation ahead of those of Boston. Liberation could start at the edges of the current economic world order and diffuse toward the center.
Absolutely! I see intellectual property as harmful and focus myself on developing totally open source technology. I’ve made one trip to teach robotics in a foreign country and I hope that over time open source could fill needs in the fringes when capitalism doesn’t, eventually leading to a more liberated world outside the capitalist center.
Generally one of two things needs to happen.

Either a new industry, or new innovations in existing industries, creating more low-skill jobs in the same manner that previous industries have done.

Or make the need to work in order to make a living obsolete for many.

> I’ve researched this extensively and I’m convinced we could have done this in the developed world starting 100 years ago, but individuals in a position of power preferred to accumulate wealth themselves rather than distribute earnings equitably.

Bucky Fuller wrote "GRUNCH of Giants" which says something similar.

("GRUNCH" is GRoss UNiversal Cash Heist)

> Cooperatively run companies are one way to do this. If the major companies of our world were cooperatives, a wide swath of the population would gain the wealth our world is increasingly producing.

How do you imagine we manufacture for example microprocessors in such scenario? I.e. how does a group of people start the next Intel as a co-op, without ever taking any external capital? BTW I've sent the same question to Chomsky some time ago, but no response yet.

Well this could be done with anarchist communism where the economy is made up of a network of communes that trade with one another. Of course to build microprocessors you need to develop some wealth, so like any economy they’d have to grow slowly starting with smaller things. But over time I see no reason why a network of communes couldn’t amass the wealth necessary to build microprocessors. Although one issue is that communists are I think less focused on wealth accumulation.
I don't understand how technology alone won’t solve the problem. If I have a technology that can provide me my basic need (food,shelter,etc) and it cheap enough and easy enough for me to operate myself, in a way that I can be self sufficient without relying of other human, how is the notion of traditional job will not change in this situation ?
I think his point was that right now, if that technology did exist someone would decide that you need their permission (and some payment of course) to operate it and show up with soldiers if you tried anyway.
The amount of labor necessary to satisfy basic needs has went down significantly over the last hundred years, but the amount of labor needed to afford satisfying basic needs has not. A successful strategy for full automation would see work hours gradually reduce until they hit zero.

The reason this has happened is that we use an economic system where laborers are paid market rate and the owners are paid the rest. So when we automate something new, the market rate for labor stays the same (at best), but reduced costs mean there's a bigger chunk leftover for the owners. So business owners capture all the returns from automation. As long as this holds, you should expect increased automation to benefit whoever already owns the machines, not society at large.

And there are lots of possible solutions for this, some quite simple, but they're all considered socialism or communism, so when you start talking about them people assume you want Soviet Russia and stop listening.

Agreed. But I believe worker ownership of the means of production can be achieved legally in our present system. A network of cooperatives could ethically support its members, and there would be no elite owners to suck up the wealth they generate.
Total individual self sufficiency is not really the best solution - collective self sufficiency is. But once we start collaborating, we fall in to structures where all the benefit we create ends up in the bank accounts of a few people instead of building a utopia. It takes a different structure to society, not mere technology, to change this situation.

Moreover: liberating technology will not be developed by the capitalist establishment because our liberation runs counter to the opportunity we represent as tools to be exploited. This is why Silicon Valley relies on surveillance and the big companies don’t share their key source code. They don’t have the goal of liberating us.

Do you mean someone or some group of people is going to prevent the invention of this technology (individual self sufficiency) ?

Invention of technology doesn't rely on capitalist establishment though, as long as there is at least one engineer out there to work on it just for the sake of it. For example, the invention of linux.

No, but technology does not spontaneously occur. I am in fact a huge advocate of the development of liberatory technology like Linux, but I emphasize that actual people have to be working on that problem for the technology to develop. It is not the case that it simply “will happen”. It will only happen if we build it. The capitalists will not build it.
> and I’m convinced we could have done this in the developed world starting 100 years ago

I'm interested in reading more about this. Do you have books/research papers you recommend?

Well, I’ve definitely found Chomsky’s work helpful as a libertarian socialist critique of the state. His book “On Anarchism” helped lay out to me how collectivist movements of the past have often failed by direct violent repression from the state.

I’ve not read Karl Marx but I’ve learned from others that his critique of capitalism is worthwhile and relevant today and has been since it was written.

At one time I found Richard Wolff helpful, including his book “Democracy at Work” about worker run collectives. His lectures may be of value but lately I find him hard to listen to because of how kind of smarmy he gets.

This interview with Murray Bookchin from 1986 was pretty informative:

Otherwise the subject of interest is called “anarchism” or “libertarian socialism” or “communism”. It all falls under the broader umbrella of “socialism”, which is the intentional organization of society to produce a certain quality of life for all people. All of those terms have been heavily loaded by history and it’s propaganda, so you have to search carefully. Pundits of all persuasions will make broad claims about these social sciences, but know this: socialism and the other ideas laid out have a rich and complex history that absolutely must be researched. Ignore anyone who says the soviets were socialist and they were horrible so socialism is horrible. There is a history of socialist movements going back over 150 years that includes many writers and activists including those who were murdered by the soviets or the nazis precisely because they wanted power in the hands of the people, not the state.

When you look this up, also study imperialism, feminism, the black panthers and black liberation moments, lgbtq movements, and liberation movements in other countries. If you’re white and/or otherwise privileged (as I am) know that the experience of less privileged people are so different from yours that they absolutely cannot be excluded from the development of a utopia.

For more information see here:

I appreciate your optimism but I'm skeptical to the extreme that it is achievable.

>why do people need to have jobs? Why can't we turn our lives towards something better?

Answer: the basic faults inherent in basic human nature that have prevented us from getting along at any point in human history : avarice(greed), lust, sloth, envy, gluttony, etc. General religious intolerance and ethnic hatred, war, prejudice, etc. And that's just among the so-called normal people. Factor in psychopathic behavior and it's not difficult to find an answer. But that only covers behavioral issues.

Now factor in contributions from natural disaster, drought, pestilence, pollution, scarcity, etc. and this explains why I don't think we have a chance.

Your desire for premature standardization would have left our automobiles with one common standard of hand crank.

Everything that died in the Cambrian explosion would have died anyway if they had all been the same species; but having that variety available allowed the best designs to be selected. We wouldn't have humans without it.

AS/RS systems have been making steady inroads into warehouses despite the lack of bombing runs and those require a lot of disruption. The rolly bots Boston Dynamics is trying to put forward don't really seem to require any infrastructure replacement at all. I really think this is an area where ad hoc experimentation is working and we'd be mistaken to try to create a single standard without trying everything first.
I don't think Warehouse Robotics in ambient are of anything urgent. There are still plenty of affordable labours and tools to help with lifting. Warehouse Robotics in Cold Storage is an entirely different scenario, no one wants to go into the freezer even when you have full suits and helping machinery. The constant changing of temperature from -20C ( -4F ) to 3C ( ~40F) over a long period of time causes all sort of damage to your body. And it is increasingly hard to find anyone willing to work in these environment even when substantial premium are paid.

I am still baffled as to why Cold Storage today is still not fully automated.

>no one wants to go into the freezer

it's great if you're hungover.

Genuine question - why 2 wheels, not good old 4? Only because these robobees look cooler this way?
My guess is that [1] 4 wheels don't solve the fundamental problem of lifting - counterweights (unless your 4-wheel "platform" is so wide to not easily fit / maneuvre in the warehouse), and [2] 2 weels are enough - with modern motors, microcontrolers and feedback algorithms, 2-wheel platforms (think Segway) are perfectly stable.
Forklifts pretty much solved this. Just put the weight in the back.
I don't think Segways are exactly a great argument for practical design.
From :

Handle is a robot that combines the rough-terrain capability of legs with the efficiency of wheels. It uses many of the same principles for dynamics, balance, and mobile manipulation found in the quadruped and biped robots we build, but with only 10 actuated joints, it is significantly less complex. Wheels are fast and efficient on flat surfaces while legs can go almost anywhere: by combining wheels and legs, Handle has the best of both worlds.

Handle can pick up heavy loads while occupying a small footprint, allowing it to maneuver in tight spaces. All of Handle’s joints are coordinated to deliver high-performance mobile manipulation.

I'm no robotics engineer, but to me the design looks brilliant. I suspect that the biggest problem with a machine that needs to pick up and carry objects in a somewhat humanoid fashion is going to be weight and balance. They've attacked the problem by making the entire body of the robot a seesaw and adjustable counterweight to control the balance. Having the robot on two wheels also gives the robot a smaller footprint, gives it a zero turn radius, simplifies how you control turning, and probably also simplifies the navigation control algorithms.
Way easier to change center of gravity.
You are imagining a robot by looking at the application demonstrated in the video. Boston Dynamics is not building robots that can just move boxes. This is just a predecessor to something bigger that can do different things, almost like a human.
I had the same question. The robot looks too complicated for what it's doing.
That's exactly what surprises me about BD. It's not like they made one complicated robot. They have an entire lineup of them! These robots are so highly advanced they make conventional robots look like they came from the stone age. However that complexity probably comes at a hefty price tag which makes it lose against simpler robotics.
I love making things. I dabble at designing them. I hate companies that are all about the numbers with a fury (people are not numbers).

But once in a while I see a company run by engineers, and I just shake my head and back away. BD seems like a "tech utopia", with all the bad connotations that can have.

I never saw BD as a product company.

> We began as a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where we developed the first robots that ran and maneuvered like animals. Now we are taking the next step, combining the principles of dynamic control and balance with sophisticated mechanical designs, cutting-edge electronics, and software for perception, navigation, and intelligence.

They seem pretty clearly to be a R&D company around dynamic control and balance, so it makes sense that they would have rather complicate robots.

Is it more energy efficient to use a counterbalance? Compared to simply putting the load onto motor torques?

I understand energy efficiency is an odd thing to optimize for at this stage, but that would explain the design.

apes might have had the same question when they first saw humans :)
Probably because it's Boston Dynamics, not Boston Practical Industrial Robots.
When I see this video, I keep thinking of Terror Birds.

A robot like this, able to move on 2 wheels, could be quite versatile for combat in tight spaces. Giving it a 4 wheel bogey like on an iBot, with the ability for the bogey to fully rotate, would also enable stair climbing.

The single manipulator could be mounted with a gun/bayonet, which could also be turned around to provide a surface for a door breaching ram. The thought of such a thing is pretty terrifying.

There's the nightmare fuel.
This is pretty much all i see whenever i see boston dynamics attempting to do a cute "oh look at the robot picking up a box" video.

put an ak47 in that robot's manipulators and install some level 3 armor on the important bits and you've basically build a automated mobile weapon of terror and oppression

i don't remember the source but the only reason big dog was rejected by the us military was the sound it generated + power requirements. not really a problem if it's also firing guns at the same time and is deployed from a mobile self driving charging base. maybe the robot charges itself from the nearest tesla power station...

The bobbing abdomens lend credence to my claim that the way to build a giant mech robot suit is to include an autonomous tail
Nice. It's fast enough to be useful. It's all electric - the hydraulic systems are gone.

Palletizing is a routine robot task.[1][2] This is just palletizing with a mobile base. Now Boston Dynamics has to compete on price with the twenty or so other companies that do palletizing. If this turns out to be cost effective, Kuka will probably do it, too.

[1] [2]

I don't think these types of robots will ever get smart as humans and que terminator music... i think rather companies like will start doing surgery on human brains and slowly humans will become more and more cyborgs until at some point... yes, a human with a human brain will have all these artifical parts and 1/2 his/her brain now a robot etc. And maybe that "person" will lose track of which side they are on in the human vs robot war?
Or they'll get in influenced by anybody having access to the parts software and will subtly lose free will and never notice they did.

But of course the part makers will say they are super secure and will have a PR making them look like as legit as google or amazon today. Because it's convenient, people will do it, considering the warnings comming from tin foil conspirationists.

Soon society will expect the level of productivity those parts give you, and most public and private services will assume this interface so the people not doing it will be more and more excluded from the regular system.

Totally! Think of school. Like how can you compete with cyborgs other than to become cyborg too? If the kid next to you in class can google search in his mind without looking at a phone... well that kid will have all the answers right ?
> and will subtly lose free will and never notice they did.

Isn't that happening for decades now ?

> the people not doing it will be more and more excluded from the regular system.

Same with cars, phones, internet

There's something I don't understand, perhaps someone knows and can explain.

Why have the chosen to build it with only two wheels? It's clearly unstable and has to constantly adjust it's position and counterweight to stay balanced. Sure, it's super clever and I think it looks amazing. But surely it would have been far cheaper and easier to build it with three of four wheels so it naturally stable. It would have looked less cool, but I feel like that can't be the only reason.

i dont think these robots are actually going to be used in this industry. seems like a demo.
I think the idea might be to have them for different kinds of works. We might be seeing 0.1% of the work these robots (this particular design) will actually do.
I still can't really think of any kind of work where 2 wheels and that body shape would be any better than just having 3 wheels and more stability. It would be just as flexible. Using wheels means it's not like it's going to be doing anything particularly off road anyway, that's for the walking robots.

Literally the only thing I can think of is that this is a pure tech demo to show off how clever they are that will never make it into production at all. Which is fair enough I guess, it certainly achieves it's aim if that is the case.

It looks like the warehouse needs to be redesigned not just the robots inside it. Warehouse lighting is likely unnecessary, heat can be reduced, sensors everywhere... its now a machine environment. The floor markers, etc should all be part of that environment. Build the environment to the automated worker and you'll get a more effective result. I think Amazon has gone this route already.
I like how Boston Dynamics decided to monetize this YT video. Those robots don't pay for themselves
What they now need, is somebody to re-design a wherehouse around the new capabilities of robotics.
Yes but honestly, if I were to redesign a warehouse for robotics I wouldn’t do it for humanoid robots but for more efficient form factors. Like what amazon and alibaba are doing.
You should check out Ocado - they have literally done this

It looks a bit different now
Note that many warehouses have already done that. Amazon Robotics (formerly Kiva Systems) runs Amazon warehouses. A large portion of the warehouse is off-limits to humans, marked by tape.

Would like something like that for masonry.I wish some more robotics and automation for house/roads construction. Is anyone working actively in that area? I have some interesting ideas how and what can be done to reduce total construction costs a bit.
Can you share your ideas? My email is in my profile.
At this point I feel like Boston Dynamics has a designer whose job is to make their robots look cool/interesting, beyond what their function requires.

There's always something mesmorizing about them!

I had the opposite thought: that they are designing their robots strictly for function and letting the form follow.

To be sure they are "cleaned up" but the way the counterbalance is slung underneath, and "Wheeler"-like ("Return to Oz" reference) mobility, single arm with some kind of suction gripper .... it screams utility.

What I'd like to know about this thing - how would you program it for what to do in a real warehouse environment? I would expect that many real warehouses have plenty of small differences in what needs to be done day to day. It's easy to tell a person to do something a little differently. How tough would it be to tell this robot to do it, and to make sure that it actually does it right?
I wonder what the noise level will be with ten industrial vacuums on wheels running around.
Looks ridiculous ... but I get it. The first computers look fairly ridiculous now.
The issue I think of his how much maintenance will one of these robots need? What will happen to the robot (or me) if I don't pay for any maintenance?

I bring this up as warehousing is all about reducing costs from all angles.

I wonder why the one stacking the boxes gently lowers each box until it is in place before letting go, but the one putting boxes on the roller conveyor just gets them near and then drops them on?
This reminds me of Tim Lewis' Pony kinetic sculpture...

Warehouses typically have shelves four, five or six tall. Thus, forklift operators. This thing seems limited to sorting boxes at floor level?
Very clever, but if it has battery issues it's going to fall on its face. An automated forklift seems a bit safer in that scenario.
I want to see a robot picking up LEGO bricks out of a pile, and then stacking them up, then I'm impressed.
Can it get back up if it were to fall over?
The balancing slows everything down so much. Is it really needed?
depalletozaurus rex
Now that was funny.
I have worked with people with less personality.
the 2 wheel approach looks redundant. just use 4 wheels and all that extra balancing is not needed.
Moves and sounds like something from The Surge. I want to target it's head to get some sweet new head armor.
AI Ostritches are taking over!
How does that gripper work?
I think vacuum. Like those wall-climbing robots.
Will be good to move human bodies after the machine uprising of 2048.
The way to defeat one of these guys is to put a bucket of water in front of it, and then just relax and enjoy watching it dip its head in and out forever.
Url changed from, which points to this.
We need basic income now.
I wish they had a better co-op internship program it seems they don't have one at all.
For those of you who don't work in the warehouse logistics space ProMat, which is to warehouses as CES is to home gadgets, is coming up in a couple of weeks so expect lots of warehouse robotics companies to continue making announcements.

The roboticization of manufacturing is mostly finished since factories work with identical outpus SKUs every time. Warehouses tend to have to handle a lot of different SKU but in a fairly regular way meaning that they're an environment that's pretty much ripe for robots to be entering just now. Goods to picker systems (like Kiva) have really taken off allowing robotic pickers like the one sold by us a nice ecological niche to fill. There are also companies with robotic forklifts and all sorts of other things.

I'm not entirely certain that the role these bots are performing wouldn't be better served by a large stationary robotic arm, as some other companies are working on now. It might very well be the best solution for unloading trucks?

“The roboticization of manufacturing is mostly finished“ -huh? 95% of the factories I go to don’t have the stuff at Promat. I was just at a UR beginner training class with engineers from fortune 50 companies. The robotic tools out there cover a vast majority of the processes but pricing, integration, and reusability still leave some huge holes in the market.
What do you mean by "reusability"?

Also, how well does your sample match the US factory population? Is there data on robotization of factories by size, product type, etc?

By reusability, I just mean most automation components that I see are single use and set up by integrators. I think they can continue to be simplified for factory engineers to reuse. Universal Robots is there, but most aren’t.

To me, saying robotization is complete is akin to saying computerization of business is complete because IBM has a mainframe.

>I'm not entirely certain that the role these bots are performing wouldn't be better served by a large stationary robotic arm

This was my reaction, though I suppose it's a capability-demonstration video. Would think in unloading, you'd want something heavier to unload full pallets/carts etc.

Possibly, they'd be useful for rare-item box picking in DC's, where the runs are long enough and infrequent enough that it's costly to carry a full shelf (slower transit speed, plus need for return trip)? Or maybe it's just a capabilities demonstration and the market caught on to the whole search and rescue thing [0].


From what I have been seeing from an industry that is ancillary to warehouse robotics needs (LIDAR sensor apparatus for UAVs and drone purposes), high resolution/high-performance small LIDAR are coming down a lot in cost now. And there are a number of new small machine vision startups selling LIDAR units for these sorts of purposes.
Those boxes are all the same size - Tetris on easy mode.

Pickle Robot is also working on this but with a fixed base and support for random box sizes/weights. We’ve just started scratching the surface of palletizing/loading with reinforcement learning.

If you are excited to come solve robotic box handling ping me! aj at

I thought the same thing.

I did a tour of the Cabot cheese factory in Vermont, and they have a fixed arm palletizing cheese wheel cartons. It looked a lot more reliable than these robots and seemed to have fewer moving parts.

On the stationary arm question it is a question of warehouse logistics. Warehouses are cheap (essentially a simple box over a concrete pad) and they they get reconfigured all the time. A robot that can set up where ever you have dropped a bunch of metal shelving, and then move to a new place, keeps your operational costs down.
Right, but how about a stationary arm mounted on the back of a pickup truck? Or something. It does seem like a lot of the hard work here (balancing, not running out of space to zig-zag...) isn't obviously needed for the task.
True, for the task shown. That for me is the rub. As an engineering problem I'm looking at it like "The robot cost $x, operating it costs $y, and setting it up to operate costs $z." So I want to make sure that the costs add up to (ideally) less than an operator or two.

Optimization is about what can you assume is "fixed" about the environment (and so not engineer a solution around it) and what must you consider "variable". Clearly fixed constraints are easier to engineer around, and if all of your pallets and racks were arranged similarly, then a robot you could move somewhere, have it extend its "base" to provide stability, and then run all day would be a win.

The other variable then is how often do I do this task from this space. Assuming setup and tear down of the robot takes some number of minutes/hours, those add as a cost to change tasks. If the robot is mobile and can move itself from task to task, that changes its economics as well.

So lets assume as an example, that there are six bays (loading docks) at the warehouse and each bay of the warehouse receives one truck a day which offloads up to 6 pallets that need to be transported on to the conveyor.

If all trucks arrive at the same time:

Six robots will efficiently unload them as soon as they arrive. (optimizing for truck parking time) At the expense of six robots.

One robot that can be packed up, moved, and unpacked, can work all bays at the cost of loading bays that cannot be reused until all previous bays have been unloaded. How long does that take? And how does it affect how many goods can be moved through the warehouse? (which is how money comes in)

Then there are trucks that arrive at different times. Same options but now you have idle robots (if you have six robots) which are waiting for a truck. Although you might be able to overlap robot movement with truck arrival to keep your bays reasonably busy.

At the outermost level of the problem (where the business people look at it), a warehouse is essentially a "switch" that moves goods from bulk carriers to more specific carriers. Each good moved through earns its percentage of the transport cost. Each good incurs a storage cost while sitting in the warehouse. Lots of metrics around how many times you can completely fill and empty the warehouse of goods vs the money you can get for transporting goods.

Bottom line is that reality (and logistics in particular) are pretty complicated and I expect there are times when a stationary arm would make more sense than a moving arm. However I consider the 'moving arm' to be the super class of 'arm' (to me it seems easier to turn an arm that can move on its own to one that is stationary, and much harder to give a stationary arm the ability to move.)

This is all true, my point was just that there's a lot of cutting-edge stuff here solving a solved problem.

The arm itself may be great. If you need it to be mobile, then there are much lower-tech solutions to that part of the puzzle, like a modified forklift. You can still have a computer drive it around if that makes sense.

That swinging counterweight is a major hazard, and negates the idea of having a small foot print due to 2 wheels... But then I remembered this is probably designed to impress non-engineers, and has nothing to do with safety, or efficiency.
Its only a safety hazard if people are around it right? If the warehouse is fully automated it is only a hazard to other robots right?
Except this machine is designed to look appealing to humans.
and that can probably be fixed by a software update somewhere down the road
If you take a tour of a factory with industrial robots there will be black and yellow tape on the floor or some other equivalent way of warning:

Do not step inside this perimeter or you may die.

If a 200kg robot arm gives you a love tap because you were just barely in the perimeter you may not survive.

We’ll fix it in post is ok for film production. Move fast and break things is ok in free to consumer services or SaaS where 0.99 uptime is great. It is not ok with industrial automation.

In addition to "Assume good faith," I think HN should have a rule that goes something like, "Assume people aren't complete idiots." Call it a hunch, but I'm going to guess that the people who build this thing understand how to use a simple IR sensor to tell if a human or animal larger than a typical warehouse rat approaches within several meters.
We just build our stationary robotic arm systems on top of metal pallets so it's easier for customers to move them around if they need to.
That is an awesome solution! Everyone already has a forklift in the warehouse. Do you worry about the torque moment for extension? Clearly one can do the whole push a weight out in the opposite direction like cranes do, but I could see that interfering with turning depending on layout.
We mostly work with consumer goods that'll easily fit in one hand so that hasn't been a big problem for us. In our new video for ProMat ( </shamelessselfpromotion> you can see the sorts of things we pick. When people wander by our booth we encourage them to throw in their wallet or shoe or such to let the robot pick it. Not their briefcase.
Very cool product. May I ask what size of team it took to develop your MVP?
Can humans work nearby? For example, is it sufficient that the pallet it sits on is bright orange & has warning signs to stay 3 feet away, or do you need something more elaborate?
In most setups we use collaborative arms from Universal Robots so that people can work right next to the robot. It makes development easier too. Our system does work with industrial arms that require those sorts of precautions, though.
Mar 28, 2019 · 21 points, 2 comments · submitted by phront
I eagerly look forward to new videos from BD. I feel like I get to peak through a worm-hole into the future. It's extremely gratifying.

I especially like that this robot seems entirely dissimilar to the human form. Like it's truly been built for this type of task. I guess you could argue that that counter-balancing tail is quite like a Kangaroo, but still.

It’s like a cross between an ostrich and an octopus.

The cool thing on mixed terrain is they can lock the wheels and walk on them like feet.

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