Boston Dynamics acquires a 3D vision startup in bid to put its robots to work

Last week’s Handle video was different than past Boston Dynamics releases. Sure, it showcased the same sort of impressive robotics that have made every video from the company a viral hit, but this one took a very different approach than other recent releases: It put the robot to work.

There were some clear aesthetic differences: the robot appeared a bit larger, and its two arms were swapped out for a single, overhead limb with several suction cups attached. The key differentiator, however, was a relatively mundane setting, in which Handle was moving boxes on and off of pallets and conveyor belts.

Now we’ve got a little more insight into why the company was showcasing its latest creation in a warehouse setting. Today Boston Dynamics announced its first major acquisition: a Bay Area-based startup called Kinema Systems. The company develops 3D imagine solutions for pick-and-place logistics.

The acquisition is telling. Over the last few years, Boston Dynamics was acquired by Alphabet and then sold to SoftBank. Somewhere along the way, it seems clear that the idea of monetization was impressed upon it.

“I think Google planted the seed,” CEO Marc Raibert tells TechCrunch. “And all of the other robotics companies near us were much more focused on applications and product than we were. So we’ve been turning that corner. It’s been a consistent thing. It’s not like we got to SoftBank and they hit us with a hammer and suddenly said, ‘make products.’ They’ve been extremely enthusiastic about our R&D work, too. It feels good to do both.”

Boston Dynamics will take a two-pronged approach, moving forward. The company will continue to push the boundaries of what robotics can do, with products like Atlas, while it looks for real-world applications for other products, including Handle and SpotMini, which it announced last year at TechCrunch’s Robotics event it would begin to commercialize. That product, it seems, is still due out in 2019.

Unlike many other startups in the robotics category, however, Kinema has actually had a product on the market. Kinema describes the Pick as “the world’s first Deep-learning 3D Vision systems for industrial robots.” Notably, the Pick’s suction cup-sporting arm bears more than a passing resemblance to the Handle’s newly redesigned limb.

As part of the deal, the robotic arm is being rebranded as the Boston Dynamics Pick System, as seen in the above video. The company will continue to sell and support the system, meaning that it officially beats the Spot Mini to market at Boston Dynamics’ first commercialized product. The addition of a redesigned Handle appears to find Boston Dynamics looking to build out a logistics ecosystem, something that has the potential to compete with warehouse robotics companies like Fetch or even Amazon Robotics. 

“One of the things that’s exciting about the Kinema acquisition is that they’ve already been in the product environment that’s very specific to warehouses and logistics,” Michael Perry, Boston Dynamics’ VP of Business Development tells TechCrunch. “They’ve already been through the process of figuring out what are some of the site-specific issues we need to incorporate into our design. Everything from comms to perception to safety. All of these different factors are now filtering into the design of the robot.”

Kinema’s technology will be utilized for Handle to start. Raibert notes that the wheeled robot is the closest Boston Dynamics has come thus far to developing a purpose-driven commercial robot from the ground up.

“We did a first design of Handle where we were doing what we always do,” says Raibert. “We were trying out a new form and seeing what we can make it do. We were excited because it was so dynamic. But it was really a no-application-in-mind exploration. But then, after we had it and started to think about it, it clearly dovetailed with some logistics thinking we’d been doing. And we did redesign it after that with logistics in mind.”

Another key thing Kinema brings to the table is location. The company’s Mountain View location will serve as Boston Dynamics’ first West Coast offices. “Through this [acquisition],” Perry adds, “we’ll be establishing our presence in the Bay Area for hiring a wide variety of hardware and software specialists.”