Retail giant Amazon is cranking up the warehouse robotics arms race once more, unveiling new machines that can navigate the company’s huge warehouses entirely on their own, as well as a machine that’ll stack packages on shelves without human assistance.
One of the new robots, called Proteus, is Amazon’s first totally autonomous warehouse machine, the company says. Like earlier Amazon robots, it’s disk-shaped, about seven inches tall, and designed to slide under a shelf full of merchandise, lift it up, and carry it to a workstation where workers pack items for shipment. But earlier versions could only operate in isolated areas of Amazon’s warehouses, which human workers are not allowed to enter. That’s because they lacked the ability to detect and avoid people.
But the Proteus features 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’s been difficult to incorporate robotics into areas of our facilities where people are working in the same physical space as the robot,” said Amazon Robotics chief technologist Tye Brady. “With Proteus, no longer do robots need to be confined to restricted areas, which opens up a bigger 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 up front. But he added that they’re cheaper to deploy because “you don’t need to design a specific environment for the robot to work in.” For instance, warehouse operators won’t need to erect physical barriers to separate people from robots. Nor will they have to set up radio beacons or barcodes to help the robots find their way.
Another new robot, called Cardinal, is designed to pick up incoming items and stack them on the proper shelves. It’s a daunting task. “They come in various size and shapes,” said Su. “They have very different texture and very different packaging. It’s very difficult to pick up these items in the right manner.” Cardinal uses video cameras and artificial intelligence to tackle the problem.
Cardinal is designed for the kind of package-picking tasks usually handled by people. But Brady said the goal isn’t to do away with human labor. “Our aim with Cardinal is to help reduce risk of injury from the movement of heavy packages,” he said, “as well as the reduction of twisting and turning motions by employees.” Brady said there will still be plenty of work for Amazon’s human employees.
Indeed, since the company began deploying robots on a large scale 10 years ago, Amazon said it’s deployed 520,000 warehouse robots, but also hired a million humans worldwide.
In addition, Amazon announced a new system that can instantly scan incoming packages, eliminating the need for workers to aim handheld scanners at each package’s barcode. The company also revealed a new automated system for lifting bins of merchandise from storage shelves, then transporting the items to workstations for shipment.
The new systems are rolling out a decade after Amazon kicked off the warehouse robotics boom by acquiring Kiva Systems of North Reading and transforming it into Amazon Robotics, which is still based locally. Since then, a host of warehouse robot makers 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.