You can’t discuss a fulfillment robot without mentioning Amazon. Over the past decade, courtesy of a number of major acquisitions and seemingly endless resources, the 800-pound gorilla has become a staple in the retail juggernaut category. And while warehouse robotics and automation have boomed amid the pandemic and the resulting job loss, Amazon Robotics has been driving these categories for years.
This week at its annual Re:Mars conference in Las Vegas, the company celebrated a decade of its robotics division, which was effectively born with the acquisition of Kiva Systems. During its life, Amazon Robotics has deployed more than 520,000 robot drive units in its fulfillment and sort centers. Externally, it has been a tremendous success with the company’s approach towards same- and next-day package delivery, and it prompted competition to seek third-party robotics solutions of its own, such as Locus, Fetch and Berkshire Gray. Strengthens startup.
Amazon Robotics chief Ty Brady took the stage at today’s event to offer a glimpse of what the future will look like for its in-house automated systems. At the center of the news are two new robots: Proteus and Cardinal, an autonomous floor system and a robotic arm, respectively. The new robots are being integrated into the same shelf/sell system that has existed since the time of Kiva.
Now, however, the Proteus brings full autonomy to the floor. The company notes in a blog post,
The Proteus autonomously moves through our facilities using advanced safety, perception and navigation technology developed by Amazon. The robot was built to automatically do its job and direct employees to move around – meaning it doesn’t need to be confined to restricted areas. It can work in a way that enhances simple, secure interaction between technology and people—opening up a wide range of potential uses to assist our employees—such as lifting and moving Gokarts, to moving packages Use of non-automated, wheeled transport through our facilities.
If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say that Proteus is the result of the company’s 2019 acquisition of Boulder, Colorado-based autonomous cart company, Canvas. As I noted at the time, “Canvas […] Brings its own built-in safety with its autonomous vision system. Hardware is designed to interact more directly with workers on the floor. It’s easy to imagine that the company is adapting the technology to some of its existing systems as well.”
By the looks of it, some of that canvas technology was integrated into the Kiva form factor, so these robots could work with Amazon’s existing systems with minimal retrofitting. The additional autonomy it brings is the ability to operate in less controlled environments, meaning the technology can be applied in additional environments outside of existing cages, with the Kiva system removed.
The company notes,
Protein will initially be deployed in outbound Gokart handling areas at our fulfillment centers and sort centers. Our vision is to automate Gokart handling across the network, which will help people reduce the need to manually move heavy items through our facility and instead let them focus on more rewarding work.
Meanwhile, Cardinal has a robotic work cell that sorts out heavy packages weighing up to 50 pounds during the shipping process. The company is currently conducting a pilot test of the system and expects to be deployed at its sorting facilities at some point next year.
The Amazon Robotics detection system was also demonstrated on stage today. The device looks like an airport scanner, allowing employees to quickly input packages using “natural movements.” The company notes, “AR ID removes the manual scanning process by using a unique camera system that operates at 120 frames per second, giving employees greater mobility and helping to reduce the risk of injury. “
Finally there is another hand based picking system. It is effectively a large, mobile, shelf-based system that uses an arm to retrieve containers for handing over to a human employee. The company notes, “Our new containerized storage system places employees in a safer and more ergonomic position through a highly choreographed dance of robotics and software.”
The most interesting thing about watching these updates from afar is how Amazon has managed the integration across a range of different functions. Of course, Amazon has the notable advantage of being able to develop its own systems for its own warehouse – that, with its vast resources, are going to prove extremely difficult for smaller companies to maintain.