Amazon has announced its “first fully autonomous mobile robot,” intended to move large carts around its warehouses. The robot is called Proteus, and Amazon says it can safely navigate between human employees, unlike some of its previous robots that it kept separate in a caged area.
Amazon says the Proteus robots have “advanced safety, perception, and navigation technology,” and a (strangely quiet) video shows the robots glowing a green light in front of them as they move. When a human enters the beam, the robot stops moving and then resumes after the person walks away.
The company has also announced several other robotic systems. One, called Cardinal, is a robotic arm that can lift and move packages weighing up to 50 pounds, which Amazon hopes to roll out to warehouses next year. The company says its computer vision systems allow it to pick and pick individual packages, even if they’re stacked.
Amazon’s post also showcases technology that could allow employees to ditch the handheld scanners they use to scan barcodes. Instead, workers stand in front of a camera system that recognizes packages without stopping to scan the label. There aren’t many details on how it works, other than a combination of machine learning and a 120fps camera system, but the effect is similar to what we’ve seen from the company’s Just Walk Out technology that allows it to build cashier-less stores. . We reached out to Amazon to ask exactly what the system is seeing and will let you know if we hear back.
As is often the case with new robotic technology, there are potential labor concerns. Despite recent reports that Amazon may soon have a hard time finding workers, the company says it’s not looking to build robots rather than hire people. A leader in Amazon’s robotics division explicitly said Forbes that “replacing people with machines is just a fallacy” that could bankrupt a company. However, robots could play a role in setting a pace of work that humans struggle to keep up with safely, something we’ve already seen happen in the enterprise with automated management systems. In particular, it appears that the new scanning system could create unrealistic expectations about how fast workers should move.
For its part, Amazon says all of its new robots could help improve security. Cardinal operates in places where workers would lift and turn heavy packages, a movement that can lead to injuries, and Proteus could “reduce the need for people to manually move heavy objects.” The company is also working on a robot that would deliver containers to workers instead of having them bend or climb to reach items.
Amazon’s CEO recently promised to systematically address injury rates at the company’s warehouses, though he downplayed reports that his workers are injured at twice the industry rate by calling the company’s rates “misunderstood.”