Amazon has built a fleet of robots to help workers get packages from its warehouses to your door, and on Thursday it showed off two new ones. The first is Sparrow, a machine designed to pick items (not packages) out of 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 visit its BOS27 robot innovation facility on Thursday so it could demonstrate progress in various areas of its robotics and logistics business. And I have to say, it was damn great.
Amazon can make up to 1,000 robots every day on 10 manufacturing lines located in the Boston area, at two different facilities. The one I visited has six of those lines, and includes the ubiquitous robot arms that people tend to picture when they think of industrial robots as well as the floor-hugging robots used to stock shelves delivered around a warehouse floor. Amazon makes the floor-hugging robots on the manufacturing lines and assembles the robot arms, which are made by another company.
As much as I enjoy a factory tour, Amazon hasn’t offered much information about its automation. I learned that he uses Wi-Fi throughout the factory I visited, including sending information to his robots. It’s one of the quietest factories I’ve ever been in, and when production came to a complete halt at lunchtime, I assumed Amazon had room to expand.
As for the new robots, the Sparrow robot uses a robotic arm designed by another company, but with a newly designed arm head that uses suction to pick up individual items from one cage and place them into another. Sparrow 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 at scale next year. Sparrow, which is still in development, uses suction to pick up packages, identify them, check them for quality, and then place them in the appropriate crate. I also saw Cardinal, which can handle the variously sized 15-to-19 Amazon packages the retailer uses to ship items, in action. It was great, but not Sparrow-level great.
Sparrow is designed to pick out individual items put in packages. It can identify about 65% of Amazon’s more than 100 million items and pack them efficiently in a crate. But while computer vision (and barcodes) are recognized as the achievement of many more items, the real challenge was designing a hand (think of it as a robot arm) that can manipulate such a large variety of objects.
The head has four different tubes that can be changed in length to adapt the shape of the item, and gently suction it to lift it from the conveyor belt and into a crate. It can be adjusted from picking up a tube of Preparation H to a giant plastic bag of spices. The version I saw included about a dozen sensors as part of the system, but Amazon plans to reduce that as Sparrow evolves into a robot designed to be used at each of its stores.
I also saw Amazon’s new Proteus robot, which rolls around the floor carrying tall racks of boxes. The robot is similar to the Hercules robots in the picture above, but it is painted bright green and has a face made of LED lights.
Proteus is Amazon’s first autonomous mobile robot, meaning it can take on the factory floor on its own with humans in the mix. Whereas Hercules robots move in a grid, guided by a barcode on the factory floor and software that tells them which barcode to drive to, Proteus navigates its environment using a range of sensors that help it identify objects and people to avoid. Amazon plans to operate 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 divided into areas where robots work and those where people work. With a robot like Proteus, those two worlds can merge, opening up more places for robots to take on difficult jobs.
As an aside, Amazon is pushing hard against the narrative that robots will take human jobs. About a third of each half-dozen presentations were devoted to people: the people who are building the robots, the jobs created by Amazon’s robot-building programs for people, and the ability of robots to take harmful jobs that actively injure people . The skeptic in me thinks that Amazon has too many objections.
And of course, this wouldn’t be an Amazon story if it didn’t come with a bunch of relative statistics, so here they are. Amazon uses robots in more than 300 facilities around the globe and robots partially handle about 75% of Amazon’s customer orders. Amazon also created more than 700 new job categories within the company as a result of its robotics program.
Finally, before I sign off, let me tell you a little bit about Amazon’s new drone, the MK30. We only saw a rendering, but Amazon had a MK27-2 drone, and you’ll see if you scroll down this newsletter. The MK27-2 has a hexagonal design, which boosts its stability when flying in different wind conditions, as well as a specially designed propeller to reduce that high-pitched noise that people associate with drones. It will be used to deliver 5 pound packages in College Station, Tex. and Lockeford, Calif.
Delivery areas must have a radius of at least 5 meters of open space and be reasonably flat. And today’s drones can’t fly in bad weather, which limits them to suburban spaces and places of particular population density so that Amazon complies with the Federal Aviation Rules for drones flying over populated areas. However, Prime Air Vice President David Carbon says the upcoming MK30 may fly in some rain and will have a smaller landing radius.
That drone and the ones that follow are designed to help Amazon reach its goal of half a billion packages delivered by drone by the end of this decade. With that goal, Amazon is really shooting for the sky.