Amazon has built a fleet of robots to help workers get packages from its warehouses to your doorstep, and on Thursday it introduced two new ones. The first is Sparrow, a machine designed to pick up items (not packages) from a container and place them in another container. The second is a concept for a new delivery drone called the MK30.
Amazon invited the press to tour its BOS27 Robotics Innovation Center on Thursday so it can demonstrate progress in several different areas of its robotics and logistics business. And I have to say it was damn impressive.
Amazon can manufacture up to 1,000 robots each day on 10 manufacturing lines located in the Boston area, at two different facilities. The one I visited contains six of these lines and includes both the ubiquitous robot arms that people tend to imagine when they think of industrial robots, as well as floor robots that are used to deliver shelves of packages around a warehouse. Amazon makes the floor-hugging robots on the manufacturing lines and assembles the robot arms, which are made by another company.
While I appreciate a factory tour, Amazon hasn’t provided much information about their 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 been to, and when lunchtime rolled around, production came to a complete halt, which meant Amazon had room to ramp it up.
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 objects from one crate 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 on a large scale next year. Sparrow, which is still in development, uses vacuuming to pick up packages, identify them, check their quality, and then place them in the appropriate crate. I also saw Cardinal, which can handle the 15 to 19 different-sized Amazon packages the retailer uses to ship goods. It was impressive, but not impressive at Sparrow’s level.
Sparrow is designed to spot individual elements to be placed in packages. It can recognize about 65% of Amazon’s more than 100 million in-stock items and efficiently pack them into a crate. But while acknowledging that many more objects is a feat of computer vision (and barcoding), the real challenge was designing an arm head (think of it like the robot hand) that can manipulate such a wide variety of objects.
There are four different tubes on the head of the arm which can vary in length to suit the shape of the item, gently sucking it off the conveyor belt and placing it in a crate. It can go from a tube of Prep H to a giant plastic bag of spices. The version I saw had about a dozen sensors as part of the system, but Amazon plans to reduce that by developing Sparrow into a robot designed for use in all of its warehouses.
I also saw Amazon’s new Proteus robot, which rolls around on the floor carrying large racks of boxes. The robot looks like the Hercules robots in the image above, but is painted bright green and has a face made up of LED lights.
Proteus is Amazon’s first autonomous mobile robot, which means it can navigate the factory on its own and do so with humans. As the Hercules robots move through a grid and are guided by barcodes on the factory floor and software that tells them which barcode to head to, Proteus navigates its surroundings using a set of sensors that help it avoid objects and people. Amazon plans to leverage Proteus in areas such as loading docks, replacing people tasked with moving large carts that can weigh up to 800 pounds.
Currently, automated warehouses are segmented into areas where robots work and where people work. With a robot like Proteus, these two worlds can merge, opening up more places for robots to take on difficult tasks.
As an aside, Amazon clearly opposes the narrative that robots will take over human jobs. About a third of each of the half-dozen presentations was devoted to people: the people who build the robots, the jobs created for people by Amazon’s robot-building programs, and the ability of robots to take on tasks. pests that actively hurt people. The skeptic in me thinks Amazon protests too much.
And of course, it wouldn’t be an Amazon story if it didn’t come with a handful of related stats, so here they are. Amazon uses robots in more than 300 facilities around the world, and approximately 75% of Amazon customer orders are processed in part by robots. Amazon has also created more than 700 new job categories within the company through its robotics program.
Finally, before I wrap up, let me tell you a bit about the new Amazon drone, the MK30. We only saw one render, but Amazon had the MK27-2 drone, which you’ll see if you scroll down this newsletter. The MK27-2 has a hexagonal design, which improves its stability when flying in various wind conditions, as well as a specially designed propeller to reduce the high-pitched noise that people associate with drones. It will be used to deliver 5-pound packages to College Station, Texas and Lockeford, California.
Delivery areas should have a radius of at least 5 meters of free space and be relatively flat. And today’s drones can’t fly in bad weather, which limits them to suburban spaces and places with specific population densities, so Amazon complies with federal aviation rules regarding drones. flying over populated areas. However, Prime Air VP David Carbon says the upcoming MK30 could fly in the rain and will have a smaller landing radius.
This drone and those that will follow 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 lens, Amazon is truly shooting skyward.
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