Amazon has built a fleet of robots to help workers move packages from its warehouse to your front door, and on Thursday showed off two new robots. The first is the Sparrow, a machine designed to pick up items (not packages) from a container and place them in a different container. The second is a concept for a new delivery aircraft called the MK30.
Amazon invited the press to visit its BOS27 Robotics Innovation Facility on Thursday so it can show you progress in several different areas of its robotics and logistics business. And I must say, it was impressive.
Amazon can make up to 1,000 robots per day in its 10 manufacturing lines located in the Boston area, in two different facilities. The line I visited has six of those lines, and includes both the ubiquitous robot arms that people tend to imagine when thinking of industrial robots as well as the floor-hugging robots used to deliver packages to shelves around the warehouse floor. Amazon makes floor-hugging robots on manufacturing lines and assembles robot arms, which are made by another company.
As much as I enjoy the factory tour, Amazon didn’t provide much information about the automation. I learned that he uses Wi-Fi throughout the factory I visited, including sending information to his robots. It’s also one of the quietest factories I’ve ever been to, and when lunchtime rolled around production stopped completely, which I figured Amazon had room to expand.
As for the new robots, the Sparrow robot uses a robotic arm designed by a different company, but with a newly designed arm head that uses suction to pick up individual items from one box and place them in another. Sparrow actually represents a huge innovation in computer vision and manipulation compared to Amazon’s other robotic arm system called Cardinal. Amazon plans to roll out Cardinal widely next year. Sparrow, which is still in development, uses suction to pick up packages, identify them, check their quality, and then place them in the appropriate bin. I’ve seen Cardinal, which can handle Amazon packages of the 15″ to 19″ different sizes the retailer uses to ship merchandise, in action, too. It was impressive, but not impressive at Sparrow’s level.
Sparrow is designed to pick individual varieties to put them into packages. It can recognize about 65% of the more than 100 million Amazon items in stock and efficiently pack them into a box. But realizing that many elements are a feat of computer vision (and barcodes), the real challenge was to design an arm head (think of it like a robot hand) that could manipulate a large variety of objects.
There are four different tubes on top of the arm that can vary in length to adapt to the shape of the item, and gently suction to lift it from the conveyor belt and put it into a box. Can adjust from picking up a tube of Preparation H to a jumbo plastic bag of spices. The version I saw had about a dozen sensors as part of the system, but Amazon plans to reduce that as it develops Sparrow into a robot designed for use in all of its warehouses.
I also saw Amazon’s new Proteus robot, which rolls around the floor carrying tall racks of boxes. The robot looks like the Hercules robots in the photo above, but it’s painted bright green and has a face made of LED lights.
Proteus is Amazon’s first autonomous mobile robot, which means it can navigate the factory floor on its own and do so with humans in the mix. Whereas Hercules robots move in a grid, guided by barcodes on the factory floor and software that tells them which barcode to drive to, Proteus navigates its environment using an array of sensors that help it avoid items and people. Amazon plans to operate Proteus in areas like loading docks, replacing people tasked with hauling large carts that can weigh up to 800 pounds.
At the moment, automated warehouses are divided into areas where robots work and those where people work. With a robot like Proteus, these two worlds could merge, opening up more places for robots to take on challenging jobs.
As an aside, Amazon is clearly pushing hard against the narrative that robots will take human jobs. Nearly a third of each of the half-dozen presentations was spent on people: people building bots, jobs created for people through Amazon’s bot builders, and the ability for bots to take on harmful jobs that effectively infect people. The skeptic in me thinks Amazon protests too much.
Of course, this wouldn’t be an Amazon story if it wasn’t for a few more relative stats, so here they are. Amazon uses bots in more than 300 facilities worldwide and about 75% of Amazon customer orders are handled in part by bots. Amazon has also created more than 700 new job categories within the company as a result of its bots program.
Finally, before I sign off, let me tell you a little bit about Amazon’s new drone, the MK30. We only saw a demo, but Amazon had the MK27-2 drone, which you’ll see if you scroll down in this newsletter. The MK27-2 features a hexagonal design, which enhances its stability when flying in various wind conditions, as well as a specially designed propeller to reduce the high-pitched noise people associate with drones. It will be used to deliver 5-pound packages in College Station, TX, and Lockford, CA.
The radius of the delivery area should be at least 5 meters of open space and be relatively flat. And today’s drones can’t fly in inclement weather, which limits them to suburban and specific densely populated places, so Amazon is complying with federal aviation rules about flying drones over populated areas. However, David Carbon, vice president of Prime Air, says the upcoming MK30 can fly in some rain and will have a smaller landing radius.
That drone, and those after it, are designed to help Amazon reach its goal of delivering half a billion packages by drone by the end of this decade. With this goal, Amazon is really aiming for the sky.