And other companies are also making progress.
For decades, training a robot to be more human baffled engineers, who could not replicate the ability to grab and move objects. But now advances in artificial intelligence technology, cameras and engineering are paying off, allowing robots to see objects of various shapes and sizes and adjust their grip accordingly.
The technology is finally becoming reliable enough for companies to deploy, say IT people.
“This moment is a watershed moment,” said Kris Hauser, a robotics expert and professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They’re pretty competent at this point.”
But there is also a contentious debate. Critics fear the bots will take people’s jobs, though boosters say it will simply create more. Others note that more robots could lead to higher worker injury rates or result in tighter human oversight to ensure they hit their targets.
Beth Gutelius, a professor of economic development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the way companies are releasing these robots without too much testing or consideration for worker safety is concerning.
“Shouldn’t we all want these things to work better for more people?” she says.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
Robots have been on the scene for years, but scientists are struggling to get them to replicate tasks as well as humans, especially when it comes to hands. Amazon has Kiva robots, which look like Roombas and move packages around the factory, but still need humans to pack and sort them.
Elon Musk has notoriously said it would automate Tesla manufacturing, but humans are still needed to work on the assembly line at the Fremont, California plant. He also recently unveiled Tesla’s prototype Optimus humanoid robotwhich aims to reshape physical work.
Google recently unveiled robots which are powered by artificial intelligence to help humans with their daily tasks. Some robots even learn how to cook french fries.
Despite the progress, the toughest challenge for researchers has been teaching robots to adjust their handles to different sizes and shapes, said Ken Goldberg, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
But over the past decade things have started to change, he said. 3D camera technology, boosted by Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing cameras, has become better at spotting footage. Deep learning, a field of artificial intelligence that uses algorithms loosely modeled on the brain, allows computers to analyze more images. Researchers have begun to better understand the physics of object grabbing and incorporate it into suction cups and robotic pickers.
The result: modern robotic machines that often look like long arms. Their vision is powered by software that uses machine learning algorithms to analyze what objects look like to tell robots how to grab things. Cupping or claws adjust pressure and control with the finesse humans take for granted.
Amazon in particular has sued the technology, industry experts said. As one of the largest retailers in the world, struggling with high turnover rates and promising to deliver packages quickly, it made financial sense to try to automate warehouse processes as much as possible.
In 2012, the company acquired mobile robotics company Kiva for $775 million in cash. In 2014, the company announced a “picking challenge,” challenging scientists to create robots capable of picking up assorted items, ranging from packs of Sharpies cookies to Oreos, from a moving shelf.
Last month, Amazon unveiled its picking and sorting robot called Sparrow, a long robotic arm that can grab items before they’re packed into boxes. It is being researched and developed in Massachusetts and in operation at an Amazon facility in Dallas, officials said. It can sort about 65% of the products in its inventory, according to company officials, but nationwide expansion plans are yet to be defined.
The robot is part of a larger automation strategy, according to Amazon. If overpowered, Sparrow could pick up produce after it’s been unloaded from trucks and before it’s wrapped and placed on moving shelves. Once packed, Amazon’s robotic system, called Robin, could sort them to their destination. Cardinal, another robotic machine, could put them in a waiting cart, before being loaded onto a truck.
Amazon has always said that more machines will help people find better jobs. The robots “take over some of the highly repetitive tasks within our operations, freeing up our employees to work on other more engaging tasks,” said company spokesman Xavier Van Chau.
In March, mail giant Pitney Bowes signed a $23 million deal with Ambi Robotics to use the company’s picking and sorting robots to help sort packages of different shapes, sizes and packaging materials. In August, FedEx agreed to buy $200 million in warehouse robotics from Berkshire Gray to perform similar tasks. A some months before that, it launched an AI-powered mail sorting robot in China.
Although most of the technology started appearing a few years ago, it’s taken time to ensure these systems reduce errors to less than 1%, Hauser said, which is crucial for the results. of the company.
“Every mistake is expensive,” he added. “But now, [robots] we’re at a point where we can actually show, “Hey, this is going to be as reliable as your treadmill.”
Revenues generated by companies making picking and sorting robots are skyrocketing, said Ash Sharma, robotics and warehouse expert at Interact Analysis, a market research firm.
The research firm estimates that companies making these products will rake in $365 million this year. Next year it is estimated at more than 640 million dollars. That’s a jump from the roughly $200 million last year and $50 million in 2020 these companies generated in revenue, according to the data forecast.
An important factor is the labor shortage, he said.
Gutelius, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, said while the technology is proving interesting, it comes with risks. With more robots in warehouses, the workers alongside them will have to work at a faster pace, risking more injury.
The Washington Post reported that Amazon warehouses may be more dangerous than their rivals. Experts say adding robots to the process may increase injuries.
Van Chau said machines performing repetitive tasks would help workers. “We can relieve some of that employee pressure,” he said.
But Gutelius says companies that claim these bots will help need to be carefully scrutinized, saying they tend to implement solutions too quickly.
“It’s kind of a ‘move fast and break things’ classic,” she said. “And in this case, I think ‘breaking things’ ends up being people.”