Boston Dynamics' New Robot May Actually Make Money for Once

The beleaguered robot designer's "nightmare-inducing" robot is really its desperate bid for relevance.

Boston Dynamics has a new robot in the works, and while it’s more BB-8 than it is Terminator, the bold new direction it represents could be just what the beleaguered robot maker needs. While the company made its name with the sci-fi styled humanoid Atlas robots, this new venture is more directly functional in design. Its name is Handle.

Just as important is what Handle represents for Alphabet and its bid to reorient its robot investments away from moonshots and toward the end of work as we know it.

Handle is a helper robot made to carry objects and autonomously traverse open, mostly level spaces. It doesn’t have quite the same overall mastery of the human world that can be achieved with legged robots (don’t expect Handle to climb any ladders) but the loss is more than offset by speed and dexterity of movement. Handle is incredibly nimble, able to pull off quick spins, complex load manipulation while moving, and even jumps.

Handle’s creators call it “nightmare-inducing” but, leaving their headline-aware phraseology aside, it’s much less humanoid form is frankly pretty friendly-looking, compared to the man- and dog-bots the company has released in the past.

The robot is clearly meant to invade the nascent industrial robot space and get Google X a real financial victory to add to the wall. The company badly fumbled its attempt to break into military robots, failing to convince generals that bulky, noisy robotic pack mules would be useful enough to soldiers to justify their expense. And in any case, Google has said that it won’t accept any new military robot contracts, period.

Check out the video, below.

Last year, Alphabet announced that it was looking to sell the world’s most famous stompy robot manufacturer, based on its wide-ranging realization that the GoogleX business model simply does not work very well. Boston Dynamics simply dreamed too big, and didn’t think clearly enough about the direct market applications of its projects.

Well, Boston Dynamics still hasn’t been sold, and now the company is showing the result of its shift in thinking. Handle is perfectly suited to the sort of quick, accurate movement within a manicured space that industrial robots need most — think Amazon’s warehouse robots, but without the requirement for specially designed racking or colored lines all over the floor. With articulated, reaching arms and a Segway-like auto-balancing system to allow it to pick up weights far from its center of gravity, it seems like a good design for non-robot tailored warehouse spaces.

That’s very important when trying to colonize a space full of penny-pinching warehouse managers who have traditionally been leery of the initial cost of buying robots. If the robots are nimble enough to move through most spaces and pick/pack product on most existing racking, then that initial expense could be significantly lower. The “replace your workers with robots!” pitch has always been a bit misleading, but with Handle it looks like it could actually have a wheel to stand on.

Still, Handle is a quick mover — and does not look light. It’s unlikely something as speedy as Handle would enter a hybrid robot-human workspace, at least at first. Any workplace with Handles ripping around corners would be well-advised to let their whole human floor staff stay home.

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