What just happened? Amazon has long been a fan of using robots in its many warehouses, the latest of which is designed to aid workers with some of the more repetitive parts of the job: a robotic arm called Sparrow that can pick and handle items before they’re packaged.
Sparrow is the first robot in the Amazon warehouse system able to detect items of different sizes, pick them up, and handle them without significant human intervention. A video showed the arm selecting and grabbing a board game, a bottle of vitamins, and a set of sheets, placing each item gently into crates. Previous generations of Amazon’s robotic arms were only able to pick up around 15 different sizes of boxes, writes TechCrunch.
Sparrow uses computer vision and artificial intelligence to identify items based on, among other things, their size, shape, and bar codes. Amazon said that the robot could identify around 65% of the company’s entire product inventory, which covers millions of items. The arm also sports suction cups to pick up and hold the products.
In 2016, Amazon gave a $25,000 top prize to the winner of its second annual robot Picking Challenge to a machine that combines deep learning AI, depth-sensing cameras, and a “two-fingered” gripper and suction cup for selecting and picking items.
In June, Amazon announced Proteus, a warehouse robot that, unlike its previous autonomous machines, can operate without needing to be confined to a warehouse’s restricted (i.e., caged off) areas. Its duties include lifting and moving GoCarts—the large, wheeled cages used to hold items–from one area of a facility to another.
Amazon’s embracing of automation has once again raised questions about whether the robots will replace human jobs, especially after the company admitted to hiring too many workers during the pandemic and the union drives at some of its warehouses. Amazon insists that Sparrow will perform tedious jobs leaving workers free to perform other tasks. Hopefully, those won’t include collecting unemployment benefits.
It’s hard not to imagine that Amazon has ambitions to automate its warehouses almost entirely. The tech giant is also pushing harder into drone deliveries, potentially removing the human element from its business even further.