Apr 10, 2024 - Business

When a humanoid isn't the best robot for the job

A dog-shaped robot strolls across a train track.

Spot, a dog-shaped robot from Boston Dynamics, uses state-of-the-art camera technology and AI to protect suburban trains from vandalism and graffiti. Photo: Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images

As humanoid robots storm into the workplace, the company that pioneered them — Boston Dynamics — is taking a wait-and-see approach, though there are hints that could change.

Why it matters: Shippers and manufacturers want human-shaped robots that can lift heavy boxes and handle dangerous tasks, but it's not clear yet if they're going to be the right answer.

  • Boston Dynamics is instead betting on robotic dogs and arms-on-wheels — not Atlas, its robot that put the humanoid category on the map.
  • For now, "we don't think that that's the right form factor for logistics," Marc Theermann, chief strategy officer at Boston Dynamics, tells Axios.

Driving the news: As Tesla and a rash of startups feverishly develop humanoid robots, Boston Dynamics has instead been building non-humanoid products derived from its Atlas technology.

  • Spot is a four-legged dog-shaped robot that's being used by first responders as well as for industrial inspections. About 1,500 are at work for Boston Dynamics customers, handling around 200,000 industrial inspections per quarter.
  • Stretch is a rolling warehouse worker that can lift up to 50 pounds and move boxes for up to 16 hours on a single charge — more than four times longer than today's humanoid robots.
  • Orbit is fleet management software for robots that was introduced in January.
A robot that's a giant arm on wheels is shown amidst boxes in a warehouse.
Stretch moves boxes onto conveyor belts. Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images

What they're saying: "We want to bring industry 4.0," says Theermann, who rarely talks to the press.

  • "We want to bring automation, but we want to deploy it without our clients really changing their fixed infrastructure."

Zoom out: Mercedes, BMW and Amazon are starting to deploy humanoid robots from companies that specialize in them, like Apptronik, Figure and Agility Robotics.

  • But Boston Dynamics — acquired by Hyundai Motor three years ago — still considers Atlas to be an R&D platform.
A humanoid robot stands on a ledge and grips a box.
Atlas can jump, lift, bend and grip — all at the same time. Photo courtesy of Boston Dynamics

State of play: Videos show that Atlas is the most agile humanoid robot out there.

  • It does parkour and backflips, high-jumps while gripping bulky objects, and was recently shown moving 30-pound struts in an automotive environment.
  • Atlas debuted in 2013, but still isn't being sold commercially — despite the pleadings of Boston Dynamics customers, Theermann says.
  • Instead, the company has been using lessons from its Atlas program to create the robots that are being sold to customers.

Backstory: About six years ago, when videos were posted online of Atlas moving boxes, "people said to us, 'Hey, I want to use that robot for my logistics,'" Theermann says.

  • Instead, the company developed Stretch, its logistics robot, which debuted in January 2023 and now handles warehouse work for shippers like Maersk, DHL and Gap.

"Stretch is a very, very boring robot, but it's a robot that does one thing very, very well, which is to unload a container," Theermann says. "It's the most hated job in a warehouse."

  • Stretch "finds packages and places them on a conveyor belt at the speed of a refreshed human at 10 o'clock in the morning."

How it works: Spot can climb stairs and navigate rough terrain.

  • It's doing everything from chasing wildlife off airport runways in Alaska to helping first responders in hostage situations and disasters.
  • Anheuser-Busch is using it to patrol a major brewery, where it performs predictive maintenance on canning lines.

"You walk with the robot through your factory — you teach it the route that you want it to walk — and the robot creates a digital twin of that environment," Theermann says.

  • "And then it gets exciting because the robot can autonomously do this route, day in and day out, 24/7, without any human interaction."

Friction point: There was a loud and fierce backlash after the New York Police Department deployed Spot in 2020.

  • Public housing residents and others complained about privacy and police overreach.
  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted that the robo-dog was tantamount to a "robotic surveillance ground drone."
  • The lone police dog — which officers dubbed "Digidog" — was returned to its owners earlier than planned.

Separately, a robotic dog made by a rival company, Ghost Robotics, was tested to patrol the U.S. Mexico border — amid outcry.

Reality check: Boston Dynamics has been struggling "to find a breakthrough amid mounting losses," the Korea Herald reports.

  • Hyundai "will have to make some difficult decisions sooner rather than later as the due date for Boston Dynamics' initial public offering is only 14 months away," per the paper, which notes that the Hyundai deal includes plans for an IPO by June 2025.

What's next: "Many of our largest customers have come to us over the last couple of quarters to say, 'Hey, if there was a humanoid, can we brainstorm on what [it] would be doing for me?'" Theermann says.

  • "And so we're currently on a listening tour, and we're exploring with our best customers what these kinds of use cases might be."
  • A bevy of publicists joined the call between Theermann and Axios to underscore the fact that Atlas is still an R&D platform — not for sale — but the team also hinted that that's likely to change.

The bottom line: Don't be surprised if Atlas one day joins the workforce, potentially blowing competitors out of the water.

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