Amazon warehouse bots are close to replacing human hands

Amazon warehouse bots are close to replacing human hands

In 2019, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos predicted that within a decade, automated systems would have evolved enough to understand elements with the dexterity of the human hand. Three years later, Amazon appears to be making progress toward that goal.

A recent video posted on the company Science Blog It features a new “catch” robot system that could one day do much of the work humans do in Amazon warehouses today. Or, potentially, helping workers do their jobs more easily.

The topic of warehouse automation is more important than ever in the retail and e-commerce industries, especially for Amazon, which is the largest online retailer and the second largest private sector employer in the United States. Recode reported in June that research conducted within Amazon predicted that the company could Running out of workers to hire In the United States by 2024 if it does not implement a series of comprehensive changes, including increased automation in its warehouses.

At the same time, the company faces the possibility that American workers will start unionization after the victory of the Amazon workers’ union In the historic vote for Staten IslandAnd another union election is due in October in upstate New York. Labor activists have long speculated that Amazon may ramp up automation efforts in response to union activism.

In a statement made by an Amazon spokesperson, Siddhartha Srinivasa, Director of Robotics AI said: [W]We have a great opportunity to help advance the science of manipulation in ways that meaningfully benefit our employees and customers. Our investments in robotics and technology help make jobs in our facilities better, easier and safer, as well as create new career opportunities for our employees.”

The robotic arm in question doesn’t look as futuristic as you might imagine. The proof-of-concept machine uses an off-the-shelf metal drill in place of some new gripping hardware. But he can pick up a new item and deposit it in a metal chute every three seconds. At the rate shown in the video, Amazon says the robot can handle more than 1,000 items per hour, meaning it can pick and store things at rates many times faster than a human factor can. From a box of crayons to a bowl that looks like garlic powder to a broom whisk, every ingredient is grabbed and moved without human guidance. The robot uses multiple cameras to help it “see” a variety of items in front of it, machine learning to help it determine the best way to capture a particular item, and motion planning algorithms to help the robot navigate a crowded scene without bumping into or damaging any cargo. Initial tests also found that the robot damages some products at a much lower rate than other manipulation robots Amazon tested.

The video and automated system was created late last year in a controlled lab test by Amazon technicians. This robot prototype can only transport items weighing less than two pounds. During testing, the robot was asked to handle hundreds of different items in this weight group, and it managed to hold and move about 95 percent of them, according to Amazon spokesperson Xavier Van Chau. On a larger scale, the 2-pound weight restriction still allows the robot to grasp a selection of items that make up about half of Amazon’s total product range. But the company is working on solutions that would be able to handle any type of item that could fit inside an Amazon box, perhaps by combining a hacking attachment with a common suction method, and training the system to know which “hand” should be used for which item.

How long it will take Amazon to create a single bot that can handle the vast majority of products is up for debate, but the question is about “when” and not “if.” And when “when” becomes “now,” we will have an answer to one Big unknowns for this age of automationWill a new generation of warehouse robots capable of accommodating merchandise almost like human hands make work better or easier for the people doing these jobs? Or will technological development eliminate the need for these workers and their jobs?

An Amazon spokesperson said the company is betting on the latter, based on the way it has used other types of robots in its warehouses so far. In June, Amazon announce A prototype of an automated system called Cardinal that lifts and sorts already filled orders, and the company claims it “reduces the risk of employee injuries by handling tasks that require lifting and shifting large or heavy packages or complex packing in a confined space.” The company says it expects to introduce the system in Unspecified number of execution centers in 2023. And last year, the company unveiled another robot arm it calls Robin, which takes on a similar task with lighter packages. Fan Zhao, a company spokesperson, declined to provide details about the deployment of Cardinal or Robin bots.

Amazon’s history in robotics goes back to when it bought a company called Kiva for $775 million. In the decade that followed, it rolled out more than 500,000 roving robots into warehouses. During the same period, the company says it employed more than a million workers and points to this fact to try to dispel the notion that warehouse developments are alienating workers.

“Since the early days of acquiring Kiva, our vision has never been tied to a binary decision of people or technology,” the company said in Latest blog post. “Instead, it was about people And the Technology works safely and harmoniously together to deliver it to our customers. This vision persists today.”

Kiva bots have made some Amazon repositories jobs easier. For those working in hoisting or warehousing roles, robots now relocate shelves to them at a stationary workstation, where they stand for 10 hours a day with padding under their feet. In Amazon’s pre-Kiva days, these workers would walk 10 to 20 miles a day, picking merchandise out of aisle or adding merchandise to aisle after aisle from stock shelves.

Kiva bots also brought downsides. Before the arrival of robots, the capture objective was probably to handle 100 items per hour; Amazon tripled those expectations when robots, not workers, did the travel. And with the addition of bots, Infection rates have increased Workers had to move faster to keep up with higher quotas.

Tasks completed by Amazon test bots such as “ingesting the disk” in the new video will likely overlap more directly with existing workers’ tasks. A robot, like an Amazon picker or warehouse, retrieves a piece of goods from one place and moves it to another, as quickly as possible without damaging it. However, while the robot’s prototype picks items at a rate of more than 1,000 per hour — about three times the typical rate for human pickers in Amazon warehouses — it’s not a comparison between apples and apples. Amazon collectors in warehouses with robots have to pull every item from the crowded shelving unit, sometimes having to use a tiered chair to reach the merchandise at the top. Likewise, Amazon warehouses have to place each piece of merchandise in an open space on the mobile shelving unit, versus a robot that simply moves them from one open space to another. Fan Chau, an Amazon spokesperson, said the prototype in the video had not been tested and was not designed to pick items off shelves as workers do in the company’s existing automated warehouses.

Robotics experts are still taking notice. Martin Ford, author of multiple books on robotics including Robots ruleAlthough it is unclear how Amazon’s latest robot prototype will perform in a large-scale warehouse, it still appears to be showing “notable progress”. With developments like Amazon’s, as well as several well-funded startups building robotic systems to try to solve the challenge of accommodating human ingenuity, “there’s no escaping the problem — perhaps sooner than many of us expect,” Ford Recod said.

“Once that happens, there is no doubt that Amazon warehouses, as well as many other environments, will become less labour-intensive,” Ford added.

Amazon assures that robots and people will continue to work together within its warehouses. But robotics experts say that one day, a company may have a real option to rely on robots to do much of the work that it currently relies on human staff to do.

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