Your future Amazon orders could be packaged by robots
Robots are doing more of the work in warehouses and factories than ever before, but there are still things humans do better. At Amazon’s massive warehouse facilities, human hands are still the ones picking up and packaging the items you order, but maybe not for long. An upcoming robotics competition run by Amazon’s Kiva Systems subsidiary could move us closer to the age of the fully robotic warehouse, as about 30 teams from academic institutions square off to see who can build the best robot for packing a box.
Amazon bought Kiva Systems in 2012 for $678 million and has integrated the company’s robots into many of its fulfillment center operations. The Kiva robots don’t have graspers for picking up products, but are instead used for moving bins of items from one location to another so human employees don’t have to walk quite as far to fill an order. They actually look like giant Roombas. The robots in the Amazon Picking Challenge will be more complex, employing advanced computer-vision and machine-learning algorithms to find products on a shelf and place them (gently) in a shipping container.
You can easily design a robot that’s more dexterous than a human and doesn’t require rest (or a paycheck), but that only holds true for extremely repetitive actions. A robot has no problem moving something from point A to point B as long as A and B are always in exactly the same spot. Humans have a remarkable ability to recognize objects, a feat which still escapes most robots. If you see a package of Oreos sitting on the shelf, you’ll probably recognize it no matter the angle. A robot, on the other hand, can be easily confused.
Successfully picking up those Oreos after you spot them is an entirely different problem. A package of Oreos is actually one of the possible test objects in the Amazon Picking Challenge, because people expect things to be shipped to them mostly un-crushed. An unforgiving metal grasper might be able to move solid objects around or choke the life out of humans in the robot apocalypse, but these robots need finesse. As such, most teams are developing special graspers to deal with the variety of objects the robots will need to handle.
Some teams are building their robots entirely in-house from the ground up. Others are using mostly off-the-shelf components with custom software for the challenge (like the Willow Garage PR2 above). The robots will be presented with various items on shelving units like the ones Amazon uses in its warehouses. There will be the aforementioned Oreos, dog toys, crayons, and more. The idea is to confront the teams with products that will be tricky for machines to recognize and pick up without damaging them.
The team that scores highest in the competition will win $25,000 from Amazon. The winning robots will probably also get some attention from Amazon going forward as it continues looking for ways to automate its fulfillment centers. The competition will take place at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Seattle on May 26-30th.