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Friday, July 28, 2017

Amazon Hosts Robotics Competition To Figure Out How To Replace 230,000 Warehouse Workers

There is little doubt that Amazon operates some of the most technologically advanced warehouses in the world.  As of the end of 2016, the Seattle Times noted that the company 'employed' roughly 45,000 robots spread across 20 fulfillment centers around the country. 
As can be seen in the video below, the KIVA robots, a company which Amazon bought for $775 million in 2012, move product bins around the company's massive warehouses with relative ease.  The bins are delivered by the KIVA robots on a just in time basis to human 'pickers' who grab whatever products are needed and finish the packing process before boxes are shipped off to customers.


But while they've seemingly mastered the art of moving bins around a warehouse floor with, for all essential purposes, miniature robotic forklifts, a solution to automating the simple task of picking individual items out of those bins has remained elusive.  And, with 1,000's of very expensive, sickly and generally needy humans currently fulfilling that task, you can bet Amazon is eagerly pursuing that solution with some level of urgency.
In fact, just this weekend, Amazon will be hosting a robotics competition with 16 teams from around the world who will get a chance to show off their robotic "picking" technology for the chance to win a share of $250,000 in prize money.  Per Bloomberg:
Sixteen teams of robotics researchers are traveling to Japan this week to help Amazon.com Inc. solve its warehouse problem. The company has a fleet of robots that drive around its facilities gathering items for orders. But it needs humans for the last step — picking up items of various shapes, then packing the right ones into the correct boxes for shipping. It’s a classic example of an activity that’s simple, almost mindless, for humans, but still unattainable for robots. Starting Thursday, the company is running the Amazon Robotics Challenge, the third annual contest for robots that push those limits.

Both academic and commercial roboticists have been putting a lot of energy into solving what’s sometimes referred to as the “picking” challenge, and Amazon is trying to direct that energy towards its specific needs. In one part of the contest, teams fill a shelf with a random assortment of items that Amazon provides — a champagne glass, a roll of duct tape, scissors, a children’s book entitled “Robots, Robots Everywhere” — and their robots pull out specific items, packing them into boxes that represent pretend Amazon orders. In another, robots confront a jumble of items, and pack them onto shelves that resemble those in Amazon warehouses, remembering where each one went. There’s about $250,000 of prize money at stake, including $80,000 for the top prize.
Of course, for a company that spent $775 million on KIVA, $250,000 in prize money is just a drop in the bucket if it helps them to identify a grad student who could potentially solve their 'picking' problem.  

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