Can Your Robot Pack Boxes? Amazon Might Have $25K for You

27 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Amazon Is Hosting A Robot Contest to Find Its New Employees.

In news that might give employees at Amazon’s fulfillment centers pause, the retail giant next month will host a contest to find a robotic solution to certain warehouse woes. Some companies view their employees as an asset; Amazon views them as a problem to be disrupted along the path to perfection (and cheap 2-day shipping on paperbacks).Various robots will be participating in the competition where the smartest one will win $25,000, however the one breaking product accidentally will be penalized, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN), relying heavily on automated robots to help workers, is hosting an event to spur efficiency among the robots and help increase the productivity for the company, on the move to ensure the customer receives the order on time. As reported by MIT Technology Review, the contest will take place at next month’s International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Seattle.

Instead of just buying or developing new ones on their own, Amazon will be be holding a competition in the coming months to see who can make the best autonomous robots for its warehouses. Amazon, with their massive warehouse facilities, would definitely benefit from the presence of robots when it comes to certain and selected tasks, and one of those areas would be packing. They’re basically a Roomba mated with a forklift — they get underneath shelves and drag them across the floor, reducing the distance employees have to walk. But there’s no robot which can match a poorly-motivated minimum-wage employee in the ability to stack shelves — a problem Amazon is determined to fix. There is an upcoming robotics competition organized by Amazon’s Kiva Systems subsidiary, and this competition could be the beginning of an era where a fully robotic warehouse gets the job done, and the seeds could be sown from approximately 30 teams that had participated in this competition to see which team is able to deliver the best robot for packing a box.

According to the specs, it has to be able to locate products on a shelf, pluck them out of containers, and pack correctly into cardboard shipping boxes. However, if someone can actually deliver a winning solution that Amazon would consider, there would likely be some serious business taking place beyond the $25K in winnings. The robots have certainly helped workers in reducing the workload by not wasting time in finding the products; however, no robot has yet been able to compete with the speed and dependability of a human which makes this contest all the more interesting. If we can teach robots to learn how to cook, anything is possible, but the deep learning techniques needed to make this happen aren’t easy to pull off.

Robotics has come on leaps and bounds (quite literally) in the last few years, with advancements in sensor hardware and recognition software making a picking robot actually feasible. While robots that can do interesting things is always a good thing, what this may mean for the human staff at Amazon facilities of this nature is unclear.

At Trinity College in Dublin, a team developed a personal assistant robot, dubbed Robbie, who can grip, hold, and release objects using an internal rubber balloon, filled with coffee granules. Whether any company manages to impress Amazon enough to turn its warehouses into complete Skynet supply dumps remains to be seen. [MIT Technology Review]

This moves into position, inflates on command and, when deflating, the granules “lock” the gripper around the object it wishes to grasp before releasing again. Humans have been very efficient with such kind of task specially identifying an object and know how to utilize all their resources to get the task completed. Although robots from Kiva Systems, Amazon’s in-house automation partner, are becoming increasingly productive, they are also becoming increasingly dated and unable to replicate many human actions, like picking and sorting specific items.

Wurman said, “We have struggled to pick out a variety of products that represent our catalog and face challenges.” Robot technology has come a long way in the past few years.

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