Amazon is testing robots that could one day replace human workers in warehouses. Amazon's Picking Challenge was a competition designed to select which robot could best perform duties normally carried out by human workers within warehouses.
Warehouse robots were tested at the IEEE's International Conference on Robotics and Automation held in Seattle. They were made to select a paperback book, a bag of Oreo cookies, dog toys and a rubber duck from a shelf much like those typically seen in warehouses. Points were awarded for proper grasping and packing and deducted whenever a robot dropped, lost or broke an item.
"We tried to pick out a variety of different products that were representative of our catalogue and that pose different kinds of grasping challenges. Like plastic wrap; difficult-to-grab little dog toys; things you don't want to crush, like the Oreos," Pete Wurman, chief technology officer for Kiva Systems, said. Kiva makes robotic shelves that already help move goods in Amazon warehouses.
The Technical University of Berlin was the clear winner of the competition, taking first prize after being awarded 148 points and beating its closest rival by 60 points. It's robot moved 10 out of 12 objects in a 20-minute period.
Robots utilized a wide range of technologies to locate, identify and pack the items. Many of the systems used suction cups to grasp items.
"The goal of the challenge was to develop a robotic system that autonomously grasps several objects from a shelf. The scenario recreates the process that occurs in an Amazon warehouse when a client buys one or more products. Currently these tasks are supported by robotic shelves which move around autonomously within Amazon's warehouse," the RBO team that won the contest reported.
First prize in the competition included a cash award.
A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came in second place, followed by Team Grizzly from Dataspeed Inc.
Warehouse robots could not only improve the speed at which packages are prepared for shipment, but methods developed for the delicate, precise movements needed for warehouses could be used for other purposes.
Robots designed to work in warehouses have been built before, but none have had the ability to carry our such duties with the speed and precision of human workers. The mechanical beings in the latest competition were all far too slow to be practical in real-world situations.
"Still, this just marks the beginning of Amazon's efforts to find an effective item-seeking warehouse robot. We'll bet the corporation's cooking up future events to entice more participants and to prompt contestants from this round to build better and faster machines," Mariella Moon wrote for Engadget.
Amazon workers and other employees in warehouses could, one day, be replaced by robotic devices capable of selecting items from a shelf and preparing them for shipment. However, these devices could also be used to assist human workers during the holiday season, when work can be at its most stressful.