Retail giant Amazon kicks off the warehouse robotics arms race once again, unveiling new machines that can fully navigate the company’s sprawling warehouses, as well as a machine that will stack packages on shelves without human assistance.
One of the new robots, called Proteus, is Amazon’s first fully autonomous warehouse machine, according to the company. Like previous Amazon robots, it’s disc-shaped, about seven inches tall, and designed to slide under a shelf full of goods, lift it, and carry it to a workstation where workers pack. the items to be shipped. But earlier versions could only work in isolated areas of Amazon’s warehouses, which human workers are not allowed to enter. This is because they lacked the ability to detect and avoid people.
But the Proteus has an array of cameras and other sensors. It can automatically spot humans in its path and move to avoid them or come to a complete stop. This means it can be safely deployed almost anywhere in the warehouse.
“Historically, it has been difficult to integrate robotics into areas of our facilities where people work in the same physical space as the robot,” said Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics. “With Proteus, robots no longer need to be confined to restricted areas, which opens up a wider range of possible uses.”
Lian Jye Su, research director for AI and robotics at ABI Research, said fully autonomous robots like Proteus are more expensive upfront. But he added that they are cheaper to deploy because “you don’t need to design a specific environment for the robot to work.” For example, warehouse operators will not need to erect physical barriers to separate people from robots. They also won’t need to set up radio beacons or barcodes to help robots find their way.
Another new robot, called Cardinal, is designed to pick up incoming items and stack them on the appropriate shelves. It is an arduous task. “They come in different sizes and shapes,” Su said. “They have a very different texture and very different packaging. It is very difficult to pick up these items in the right way. Cardinal uses video cameras and artificial intelligence to solve the problem.
Cardinal is designed for the type of package picking tasks typically performed by people. But Brady said the goal was not to eliminate human labor. “Our goal with Cardinal is to help reduce the risk of injury from moving heavy lifts,” he said, “as well as reducing twisting and turning motions of employees.” Brady said there will still be plenty of work for human employees at Amazon.
Indeed, since the company began deploying robots on a large scale 10 years ago, Amazon said it has deployed 520,000 warehouse robots, but also hired one million humans worldwide.
Additionally, Amazon announced a new system that can instantly scan incoming packages, eliminating the need for workers to point handheld scanners at each package’s barcode. The company also unveiled a new automated system for lifting bins of goods from storage shelves and then transporting items to workstations for shipment.
The new systems are being rolled out a decade after Amazon kicked off the warehouse robotics boom by acquiring North Reading’s Kiva Systems and turning it into Amazon Robotics, which is still locally based. Since then, a host of warehouse robot manufacturers have taken root in Greater Boston, including Vecna Robotics, Locus Robotics, Symbotic, and 6 River Systems, as well as Boston Dynamics with its recent package handling robot.