You can’t discuss fulfillment robots without mentioning Amazon. Over the past decade, the retail giant has become the £800 gorilla of the category, courtesy of several major acquisitions and seemingly endless resources. And while robotics and warehouse automation have accelerated amid the pandemic and ensuing employment crisis, Amazon Robotics has been pushing these categories forward for years.
This week, at its annual Re:Mars conference in Las Vegas, the company celebrated a decade of its robotics division, effectively born with the acquisition of Kiva Systems. Over its lifetime, Amazon Robotics has deployed over 520,000 robotic drive units in its fulfillment and sorting centers. From the outside, it’s been a tremendous success in the company’s push for same-day and next-day package delivery, and has prompted competition to look to their own third-party robotics solutions, bolstering startups like Locus, Fetch, and Berkshire Grey.
Amazon Robotics boss Tye Brady took the stage at today’s event to offer a glimpse into what the future will look like for their in-house automated systems. At the heart 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/cell system that has been in place since Kiva.
Now, however, Proteus brings full autonomy to the ground. The company notes in a blog post,
Proteus autonomously moves through our facilities using advanced security, perception and navigation technology developed by Amazon. The robot is built to be automatically directed to do its job and move employees around, which means it doesn’t have to be confined to restricted areas. It can operate in a way that enhances the simple and safe interaction between technology and people – opening up a wider range of possible uses to help our employees – such as lifting and moving GoCarts, the non-automated wheeled transports used to move packages through our facilities.
If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that Proteus is likely 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 security with its standalone vision system. The hardware is designed to interact more directly with workers on the ground. It’s easier to imagine the company adopting the technology for some of its existing systems as well.”
Apparently, some of this Canvas technology has been integrated into a Kiva form factor, so these robots can work with Amazon’s existing systems with minimal adaptation. What the added autonomy brings is the ability to operate in less controlled environments, which means the technology can be deployed in additional environments outside of the current cages to which Kiva systems are relegated.
The company notes,
Proteus will initially be deployed in outbound GoCart handling areas at our fulfillment centers and sorting centers. Our vision is to automate GoCart handling across the network, which will help reduce the need for people to manually move heavy objects through our facility and instead allow them to focus on more fulfilling work.
Cardinal, meanwhile, is a robotic work cell that sorts heavy packages up to 50 pounds, during the shipping process. The company is pilot testing the system now and hopes to roll it out to its screening facilities sometime in the next year.
Also demonstrated on stage today was the Amazon Robotics Identification system. The device looks a bit like an airport scanner, allowing employees to quickly insert packages using “natural motions”. The company notes that “AR ID removes the manual scanning process using a unique camera system that works at 120 frames per second, giving employees greater mobility and helping to reduce the risk of injury.”
Finally, there is another arm-based picking system. It is effectively a large, mobile, shelf-based system that utilizes the arm to retrieve containers for delivery to the human worker. The company notes, “Our new container storage system puts employees in a safer, more ergonomic position through a highly choreographed dance of robotics and software.”
What’s most interesting about seeing these updates by far is the integration that Amazon has managed, across a variety of different tasks. Of course, Amazon has the marked advantage of being able to develop its own systems for its own warehouse – which, along with its massive resources, will be extremely difficult for smaller companies to keep up with.