Amazon tests disc grab bots for e-commerce

Amazon tests disc grab bots for e-commerce

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The robots that pick out items in Amazon warehouses need to be able to handle millions of different items of different shapes, sizes, and weights. Right now, the company primarily uses a suction clutch, which uses air and an airtight seal to lift items, but Amazon’s robotics team is working on developing a more flexible clutch to reliably pick up items that suction grippers struggle to pick.

Amazon is teaching robots how to understand crowded environments in three dimensions, and to locate and select certain items using a fist, or thumb and finger. The company’s current vacuum-like clutches use flexible suction cups that mold to the surface of any item. This creates an airtight seal that allows the robot to pick things up.

Amazon said this method works great for flat items that only require a single point of contact to select, such as rulers or cards. It’s less effective for items that require more than one touch point to pick up, Amazon said, for example, a book will open if you pick it from the front or back cover only.

Suction grippers also struggle to seal bags full of granular items, such as marbles, according to Amazon. And even in items these grippers can pick up well, if the elbow angle changes due to the momentum of the robot arm swinging from one place to another, the seal will be broken too early and the robot will drop the item.

These cases are the reason why Amazon is so interested in the tweak and comprehension method. Despite how normal it is for a human, it is not easy to develop into a robot. To teach the robot to pick out items from piles of other items using this method, researchers first need to teach it to be able to estimate the shape of items that other items can partially obscure.

As humans, we do this without even thinking about it, but robots have a much more difficult time understanding the full form of an object if they can’t see all of it. Amazon bots measure what you choose using multiple camera angles and machine learning models trained to recognize and estimate the shape of individual items. The robot uses this to determine the best way to hold the item on two surfaces.

Once the robot makes these observations, it uses a set of motion algorithms to combine the information it has collected about the scene and the object with the robot’s known dynamics to calculate how to move the object from one place to another.

The robot also continues to use its multi-angle view of the pose throughout the selection period. This is another deviation from typical picking methods, in which the robot usually does not continue to look at the scene while it is making a selection.

So far, the Amazon team has seen encouraging success with its disk-powered robots. Amazon said the robot’s prototype achieved a 10-fold reduction in damage to certain items, such as books, without slowing operations.

Despite this, Amazon still sees room for improvement. The team currently uses a ready-made clutch that can only pick out items that weigh less than 2 pounds. This makes the clutch capable of handling only half of the items that Amazon makes available for purchase. Going forward, the team plans to design its own clutch for the job.

In the future, Amazon hopes to be able to implement its disc-grabable robot alongside its current suction robot so it can select the most appropriate robot for picking each individual item. The company is using a similar strategy with its Proteus (AMR) autonomous mobile bot.

Amazon unveiled Proteus in June 2022, expanding its already extensive robotics ecosystem. The company has already been using automated guided vehicles (AGVs) in its warehouses for a decade now, but these vehicles only operate indoors.

While both robots perform similar tasks, sliding under Amazon’s GoCart carts to pick them up and transport them through the warehouse, Proteus gives the company more flexibility due to its ability to work freely and safely around people. The company plans to continue using both robots in the future.

Amazon recently announced that it had agreed to the acquisition Klostermans, a Belgium-based company specializing in mechatronics. Cloostermans has been selling products to Amazon since at least 2019, including technology that Amazon uses in its operation to move and stack heavy pallets, handbags, and robots to package products for customer orders.

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