Amazon built an e-commerce empire by automating much of the work needed to move goods and pack orders in its warehouses. There’s still plenty of work for humans to do in these vast facilities because some tasks are too complex for robots to perform reliably, but a new robot called Sparrow could shift the balance Amazon strikes between people and machines.
Sparrow is designed to select items stacked in shelves or bins so that they can be packed into orders to be shipped to customers. This is one of the most difficult tasks in warehouse robotics because there are so many different objects, each with different shapes, textures and malleability, that can be randomly stacked. Sparrow tackles this challenge by using machine learning and cameras to identify objects stacked in a trash can and plan how to grab one using a custom gripper with multiple suction tubes. Amazon introduced Sparrow for the first time today at the company’s robot manufacturing facility in Massachusetts.
Amazon is currently testing Sparrow at a facility in Texas where the robot already sorts products for customer orders. The company claims that Sparrow can handle 65% of the more than 100 million items in its inventory. Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, says the reach is the most impressive thing about the robot. “Nobody has the inventory that Amazon has,” he says. Sparrow can grab DVDs, socks, and stuffed animals, but still struggles with loose or intricate packaging.
Making machines able to select a wide range of individual objects with near-human accuracy and speed could transform the economics of e-commerce. A number of robotics companies, including Berkshire Grey, Righthand Robotics and Locus Robotics, already sell systems capable of picking items from warehouses. Startup Covariant specializes in teaching robots to manipulate objects they have never seen before at work. But matching humans’ ability to manipulate any object reliably and at high speeds remains beyond the reach of robots. A human can typically pick around 100 items per hour from a warehouse. Brady declined to comment on how fast Sparrow can pick up objects, saying the robot was “learning all the time.”
Automating more work inside warehouses naturally leads to thinking about the specter of robots displacing humans. Until now, the relationship between robotics and human workers in workplaces 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 seems sensitive to the perception that robots can put humans at a disadvantage. At today’s event, the company shed light on employees who had progressed from low-level jobs to more advanced ones. However, internal data obtained by Reveal suggests that Amazon workers in more automated facilities experience more injuries because the pace of work is faster. The company said robotics and other technologies make its facilities safer.
Asked about replacing workers, Brady said the role of robots is poorly understood. “I don’t see it as replacing people,” he said. “It’s humans and machines working together, not humans against machines, and if I can allow people to focus on higher-level tasks, that’s victory.”
Bots have gotten significantly better in recent years, although it can be hard to tell hype from reality. While Elon Musk and others show off futuristic humanoid robots that haven’t been useful for many years, Amazon has quietly begun to automate much 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 continues to grow. In October, the International Federation of Robotics reported that companies around the world installed 517,385 new robots in 2021, a 31% year-over-year increase and a new record for the industry. Many of these new machines are either mobile robots that circle around factories and warehouses transporting goods, or examples of the relatively new concept of “collaborative” robots designed to work safely alongside humans. Amazon this year introduced its own collaborative robot called Proteus, which hauls stacked shelves of products around a warehouse, dodging human workers as it goes.
At its event today, Amazon also showed off a new delivery drone, called the MK30, capable of carrying loads of up to 5 pounds. Amazon has tested drone delivery in Lockeford, Calif., and College Station, Texas, and says the new, more efficient drone will enter service in 2024. The company also showed off a new electric delivery vehicle made by Rivian that includes custom safety systems for collision warning and automatic braking, as well as a system called Fleet Edge that gathers street imagery and GPS data to improve the delivery route.
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