Amazon unveiled its two newest warehouse robots on Thursday, and both machines were developed and will be manufactured at its facilities in the Boston suburbs.
The first, called Sparrow, is an automated system to unpack containers of assorted items, identifying and grasping anything from a paperback book to a bag of pet food, and re-sorting the items for delivery. Proteus is a slender, cylindrical bot that can autonomously navigate a warehouse floor, avoid running into people, and move package-laden carts that can weigh upward of 800 pounds.
The new robots were on display at Amazon’s first public media event highlighting its massive robotics facility in Westborough. Opened last year, the 350,000-square-foot building houses research, development, and testing efforts, as well as six manufacturing lines.
A second facility in North Reading has an additional four manufacturing lines. Together, the two Massachusetts offices have designed and built more than 520,000 robots Amazon has deployed in its warehouses, the company said.
“This is really the first event we’ve ever done like this where we’ve let people in the door and behind the curtain,” said Joe Quinlivan, Amazon’s vice president of robotics fulfillment and IT.
Quinlivan promised Amazon had more cutting-edge robots coming soon. “What we’re going to do the next five years will dwarf anything we’ve done in the last 10,” he said.
Amazon Robotics, created when the company bought local startup Kiva Systems a decade ago, forms part of the core of Boston’s thriving robotics ecosystem. Along with other stalwarts such as Boston Dynamics and iRobot, which Amazon is in the process of buying, the Westborough and North Reading facilities are magnets for top robotics talent and also nourish suppliers and new startups in the area.
At Thursday’s event, Amazon demonstrated hardware developed to help Sparrow grasp all kinds of objects — the company ships more than 100 million different products to customers worldwide. Proteus, meanwhile, has an array of low-cost sensors developed in-house to detect people in its path and chart a clearer course through a warehouse.
“The prior state of the art was that a robot would just stop, just freeze until people cleared the area ahead of it,” Tye Brady, chief technologist for Amazon Robotics, said in an interview. “Instead, Proteus can actually make its way through, like it’s walking through a cocktail party.”
Proteus also has a face of sorts, with electronic lights forming “eyes” and a “mouth” that can turn different colors to help human workers understand where it’s trying to go and what it’s trying to do.
“It has expressions ... to give it a little character,” said Mikell Taylor, principal technical program manager on the project. The inspiration came from farm animals, she said.
In September, Amazon bought warehouse robotics company Cloostermans, based in Belgium, but plans to continue manufacturing machines in Massachusetts, Brady said.
“It’s not lost on me that 150 years ago, this was the manufacturing center of the world with the textile industry,” he said. “It’s a decision we made to keep it local, to help generate new jobs, not just in Amazon, but with the suppliers ... in our manufacturing chain, and also because of the talent here.”
On Thursday, Amazon also displayed a new delivery drone, dubbed the MK30, that it said would be ready to bring packages to customers in 2024, as well as its new electric-powered delivery van developed by upstart carmaker Rivian. Amazon has already deployed 1,000 of the electric vans in 100 cities, including Boston.
Amazon first revealed it was working on making deliveries by drone on “60 Minutes” in 2013, expecting to begin service within four to five years. But the project has taken longer than anticipated. Earlier this year, Amazon said it would begin making deliveries by drone of items weighing up to 5 pounds in Lockeford, Calif., and College Station, Texas.
Those deliveries will be made by Amazon’s MK27 drone, a large hexagonal-shaped flyer that can navigate to a customer’s home autonomously and dump a package from a height of about 10 feet in the air.
The new MK30 model revealed on Thursday will be smaller, lighter, and make less noise.
The delays have been due in part to the needed development of regulations and safety requirements, according to David Carbon, vice president in charge of Amazon’s drone unit, Prime Air.
“It’s actually not that hard to deliver a package by a drone,” Carbon said. “It’s a very different problem to design, build, certify, and operate an autonomous, safety-critical system that can operate over densely populated environments within the national airspace.”