Amazon has announced its “first fully autonomous mobile robot,” intended to move large carts through its warehouses. The robot is called Proteus, and Amazon says it can safely navigate around human workers, unlike some of its former robots that it kept separate in a caged room.
Amazon says Proteus robots have “advanced safety, perception and navigation technology,” and a (strangely silent) video shows the robots shining a green light on themselves as they move. When a human steps into the beam, the robot stops moving and resumes after the person leaves.
The company has also announced several other robotic systems. One, called Cardinal, is a robotic arm that can lift and move packages weighing up to 50 pounds, which Amazon hopes to deploy in warehouses next year. The company says its computer vision systems allow it to pick out and lift individual packages, even if they are stacked.
Amazon’s post also shows off technology that will allow employees to ditch the handheld scanners they use to log barcodes. Instead, workers face a camera system that recognizes the packages without pausing to scan the label. There aren’t many details on how it works, other than a combination of machine learning and a 120fps camera system, but the effect is similar to what we’ve seen from the company’s Just Walk Out technology that allows it to build checkout-less stores. We’ve reached out to Amazon to ask what exactly the system is looking at and will let you know if we hear anything.
As is often the case with new robotic technology, there are potential labor problems. Despite recent reports that Amazon could soon struggle to find employees, the company says it doesn’t want to build robots rather than hire people. A lead at Amazon’s robotics division explicitly told Forbes that “replacing people with machines is just a misconception” that can lead to a company going bankrupt. However, robots can play a role in setting a work pace that is difficult for humans to keep up with, something we’ve already seen at the company with automated management systems. In particular, the new scanning system seems to raise unrealistic expectations about how fast employees should work.
Amazon, for its part, claims that all of its new robots can actually help improve security. Cardinal operates in areas where workers would otherwise lift and turn heavy packages, a move that could lead to injuries, and Proteus could “reduce the need for people to manually move heavy objects.” The company is also working on a robot that would deliver containers to employees instead of having them bend or climb to get to items.
Amazon’s CEO recently pledged to systematically address injury rates at the company’s warehouses, though he has minimized reports of its employees being injured twice as often as the industry by calling the company’s rates “misunderstood.”