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Amazon to introduce first fully autonomous robots across its warehouses

New systems seek to ease human manual labour, but company claims they’re not looking to replace workers

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Amazon has announced the deployment of two new robots across its fulfilment centres, which the company says will work alongside human workers to lift, shift and sort packages with improved safety and efficiency.

Adding to the fleet of 520,000 robots already in use at Amazon, the new systems, dubbed Proteus and Cardinal, will be the first designed to shift packages autonomously around workers, with no need for a restricted operating area.

Currently, Kiva and Pegasus robots are used to move large storage pods within a caged inventory area, using 2D barcodes to navigate. Workers call over robots to pick items off the pods, package them, and send them on conveyor belts to be loaded onto worker-operated trolleys Amazon calls GoCarts.

The new robots will assist with the sorting and movement of packages that workers do currently. Proteus will navigate loaded GoCarts alongside humans, while Cardinal will bear the weight of offloading packages from conveyor belts in sorting centres. 

Amazon claims that it is not moving to replace workers, simply reducing their involvement in risky tasks.

A demonstration video shows Proteus moving around an unmarked warehouse space, and automatically braking upon detecting a human in its path.

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Cardinal, which boasts a large crane arm, will be implemented to not only lift heavy packages from conveyor belts but simultaneously use AI to sort packages as they are loaded. Amazon claims that Cardinal is being tested with lifting capacities of up to 50lbs (22.7kg) and will be introduced in warehouse settings in 2023.

“Our vision is to automate GoCart handling throughout the network, which will help reduce the need for people to manually move heavy objects through our facility and instead let them focus on more rewarding work,” stated Amazon in a press release.

While Amazon has not specified what more rewarding work may entail, employee safety within fulfilment centres has been the subject of scrutiny in recent years. A 2021 study by the labour union coalition the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC) found that Amazon warehouses experienced 5.9 serious injuries per 100 workers in 2020, a rate “nearly 80 percent higher than the serious injury rate for all other employers in the warehousing industry in 2020.”

Addressing some safety concerns, Amazon has also revealed a new “AI-powered” identification system, AR ID, which uses high-speed cameras to identify packages. This means employees no longer must scan products manually and can hold packages safely with both hands. 

A new “containerized storage system”, which utilises robot arms to bring containers to employees, has also been demonstrated, with the goal being to reduce the risk of injury through climbing and bending down.

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