Robots may be workers' slog as warehouses automate

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Published at : 04 Nov 2020
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(30 Dec 2019) Are robots part of your everyday life? If not, you probably haven't been sorting and packing gifts in an e-commerce warehouse in the weeks before Christmas.

Amanda Taillon's job is to enter a cage and tame Amazon's fleet of wheeled warehouse robots for long enough to pick up a fallen toy or relieve a traffic jam.

She straps on a light-up utility belt that works like a superhero's force field, commanding the nearest robots to abruptly halt and the others to slow down or adjust their routes.

Amazon and its rivals are increasingly requiring warehouse employees to get used to working with robots.

Without these fast-moving pods, robotic arms and other forms of warehouse automation, retailers say they wouldn't be able to fulfill consumer demand for packages that land on doorsteps as quickly as a day or two after you order them online.

And while fears that robots will turn warehouses "dark" by replacing human workers haven't come to fruition, there are growing concerns that keeping up with the pace of the latest artificial intelligence technology is taking a toll on human workers' health, safety and morale.

The company now has more than 200,000 robotic vehicles it calls "drives" that are moving goods through its delivery-fulfillment centers around the U.S.

That's double the number it had last year and up from 15,000 units in 2014.

Tye Brady, Amazon Robotics' chief technologist says safety remains the top priority and ergonomic design is engineered into the systems at the beginning of the design stage.

"If there's ever an incident, we take every incident extremely seriously and we'll look into the root cause of that incident and then work hard to make sure that that won't happen again," he recently told the Associated Press, adding that employees are carefully trained.

Much of this boom in warehouse robotics has its roots in Amazon's $775 million purchase of Massachusetts startup Kiva Systems in 2012. The tech giant re-branded it as Amazon Robotics and closed it off from other customers, transforming it into an in-house laboratory that for seven years has been designing and building Amazon's robot armada.

A rush of venture capital and private sector investment in warehouse robotics spiked to $1.5 billion a year in 2015 and has remained high ever since, said Rian Whitton, a robotics analyst at ABI Research.

This year, the company bought another warehouse robotics startup, Colorado-based Canvas Technology, which builds wheeled robots guided by computer vision, making them more fully autonomous than Amazon's current fleet of caged-off vehicles that rely on following bar codes and previously mapped routes.

The tech giant is also still rolling out new models descended from the Kiva line, including the Pegasus, a squarish vehicle with a conveyor belt on top that can be found working the early-morning shift at a warehouse in the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear, Arizona. A crisscrossing fleet of robots carries packaged items and drops them into a chute.

All of this is transforming warehouse work in a way that the head of Amazon Robotics says can "extend human capability" by shifting people to what they are best at: problem-solving, common sense and thinking on their feet.



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