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). The latest ambition is to replace Amazon's legion of shelf-picking drones with actual robotic drones.
Amazon already uses robots from Kiva, a company it gobbled up in 2012, in some of its warehouses. 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.
As such, Amazon is hosting a competition for shelf-picking robots, with $25,000 going to the cleverest bot. 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. This incredibly dull version of Robot Wars will take place at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Seattle in May.
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. Whether any company manages to impress Amazon enough to turn its warehouses into complete Skynet supply dumps remains to be seen. [MIT Technology Review]
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