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Amazon’s new robot can handle most items in the Everything Store

Amazon’s new robot can handle most items in the Everything Store

Amazon He built an e-commerce empire by automating much of the work needed to move goods and fill orders in their warehouses. There is still a lot of work for humans in those massive facilities because some tasks are too complex for robots to perform reliably — but a new bot called Sparrow could alter the balance Amazon strikes between people and machines.

Sparrow is designed to pick up items stacked in shelves or boxes so that they can be packed into orders for shipment to customers. This is one of the most difficult tasks in warehouse bots because there are many different objects, each with different shapes, textures, and malleability, that can be grouped randomly. Sparrow takes on this challenge by using machine learning and cameras to spot objects piled in the trash and plan how to catch one using a custom clutch with multiple suction tubes. Amazon debuted the Sparrow today at the company’s robotics manufacturing facility in Massachusetts.

Amazon is currently testing Sparrow at a facility in Texas where the robot is already sorting products into customer orders. The company says Sparrow can handle 65 percent of the more than 100 million items in its inventory. This range is the most impressive thing about the robot, says Ty Brady, chief technology officer at Amazon Robotics. “No one has stock with Amazon,” he says. The Sparrow can grip DVDs, stockings, and stuffing, but it still struggles with loose or bulky packaging.

Making machines capable of picking out a wide range of individual objects close to the accuracy and speed of humans could transform the economics of e-commerce. A number of robotics companies, including Berkshire Gray, Righthand Robotics and Locus Robotics, are already selling systems capable of picking things up in warehouses. Startup Covariant specializes in making robots learn to handle items they’ve never seen before in action. But matching humans’ ability to handle anything reliably, and at high speed, remains out of the reach of robots. A person can usually pick up about 100 items per hour in the warehouse. Brady declined to say how quickly Sparrow picks items, saying the robot is “learning all the time.”

Automating more work within warehouses naturally leads to the specter of bots displacing humans. Until now, the relationship between robots and workers in the workplace has been more complex. For example, Amazon increased its workforce even as it rolled out more automation, as its business continued to grow. The company appears sensitive to the perception that robots can harm humans. At today’s event, the company highlighted employees who have gone from low-level jobs to more advanced ones. However, internal data obtained by Reveal indicated that Amazon workers at more automated facilities suffer more injuries because the pace of work is faster. The company claimed that robots and other technologies make its facilities safer.

When asked about worker replacement, Brady said the role of robots is misunderstood. “I don’t see him as replacing people,” he said. “Humans and machines work together — not humans versus machines — and if you allow people to focus on higher-level tasks, that is a win.”

Robots have become noticeably more capable in recent years, although it can be difficult to distinguish between hype and reality. While Elon Musk and others are demonstrating futuristic human-like robots after many years of being useful, Amazon has been quietly automating a large percentage of its operations. The e-commerce company says it now manufactures more industrial robots per year than any company in the world.

The use of industrial robots is growing steadily. In October, the International Federation of Robotics reported that companies around the world installed 517,385 new robots during 2021, a 31 percent year-over-year increase, a new record for the industry. Many of these new machines are either mobile robots that rotate around factories and warehouses carrying goods or are examples of the relatively new concept of “collaborative” robots designed to be safe to work alongside humans. This year Amazon introduced its own collaborative bot called Proteus, which carries stacked shelves of products around a warehouse, avoiding human workers as things go.

At its event today, Amazon also showed off a new drone, called the MK30, capable of carrying payloads of up to 5 pounds. Amazon is testing delivery drones in Lockford, California, and College Station, Texas, and says a new, more efficient drone will enter service in 2024. The company also showcased a new electric delivery vehicle made by Rivian that includes dedicated safety systems for collision warning and automatic braking. , as well as a system called Fleet Edge that combines Street View snapshots and GPS data to improve delivery routing.


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