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Amazon shows off robot warehouse workers that won't complain, quit, unionize...

Mega-corp insists it's all about 'people and technology working safely and harmoniously together'

Amazon unveiled its first "fully autonomous mobile robot" and other machines designed to operate alongside human workers at its warehouses.

In 2012 the e-commerce giant acquired Kiva Systems, a robotics startup, for $775 million. Now, following on from that, Amazon has revealed multiple prototypes powered by AI and computer-vision algorithms, ranging from robotic grippers to moving storage systems, that it has developed over the past decade. The mega-corporation hopes to put them to use in warehouses one day, ostensibly to help staff lift, carry, and scan items more efficiently. 

Its "autonomous mobile robot" is a disk-shaped device on wheels, and resembles a Roomba. Instead of hoovering crumbs, the machine, named Proteus, carefully slots itself underneath a cart full of packages and pushes it along the factory floor. Amazon said Proteus was designed to work directly with and alongside humans and doesn't have to be constrained to specific locations caged off for safety reasons. 

Youtube Video

The robot shines a beam of green light to navigate, stopping if it detects something or someone blocking its path, as seen in the demo video above. Proteus will initially be rolled out in the outbound handling areas of Amazon's fulfillment and sorting centers, before they are deployed more widely.

These robots are designed to perform mundane tasks repeatedly. Amazon hopes they will reduce the risk of injuries for workers. "The movement of heavy packages, as well as the reduction of twisting and turning motions by employees, are areas we continually look to automate to help reduce risk of injury," the cloud titan insisted.


Meet your robot coworker ... The Proteus prototype. Source: Amazon. Click to enlarge

Next is Cardinal, described as a "robotic workcell." It is a mechanical arm with an array of grippers at one end. Solving labor costs and issues is undoubtedly also a factor.

The machine reportedly uses AI and computer vision to pick packages up, read their labels, and place them on a cart. Staff won't need to twist and turn to scan and shelve items as much if the robot can do it for them. Cardinal can only pick up packages below certain sizes and weights at the moment though engineers are trying to develop a version that can handle packages up to 50 pounds (22.7 kg), and hope to implement Cardinal machines in fulfillment centers next year. 

Amazon employees currently scan each item manually as products pass through various warehouses on their way to buyers. One of the prototypes demonstrated is the Amazon Robotics Identification tool, which analyses camera images at 120 frames per second, and automatically scans boxes and envelopes as a worker transports them from a cart onto a shelf. Finally, we're shown another robot capable of picking and stowing bins, replacing the need for staff to climb ladders or bend down to get packages.


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Amazon is showing off its warehouse robot prototypes just as a leaked memo revealed it is worried about churning through the available labor pool. Employees don't tend to stay working at the fulfillment centers for very long, and some are trying and succeeding at unionizing. It's no surprise given they face relatively high rates of injury, and pressure to process orders as fast as they can. To help reinforce its manual workforce, Amazon needs to roll out more 'droids.

Machines however won't replace humans completely, we're told. "Speculation was rampant that Amazon was replacing people with robots … From the early days of the Kiva acquisition, our vision was never tied to a binary decision of people or technology. Instead, it was about people and technology working safely and harmoniously together to deliver for our customers. That vision remains today," the biz said in a statement. ®

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