Why the Amazon Robotics Challenge is a big Deal

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amazon robotics challenge
Cartman | Anthony Weate, QUT

For this year’s robotics challenge, Amazon has chosen an Aussie robot as the winner. The e-commerce giant’s automated future continues to take shape.

Amazon is continuously pushing toward the automation of its warehouses where robots are already being entrusted some tasks that were previously restricted to humans.

Within their warehouses, selecting the correct products from thousands of storage racks to fulfill an order is one of the main tasks Amazon wants to automate. The automation of this task alone would translate into huge time savings.

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However, as simple a task this is for human workers, it’s very complex for robots, having to sort a variety of items, recognize the product, and physically use it to fulfill an order.

To find the best solutions to these technical obstacles, Amazon has been calling for help from the wide scientific community, via a series of competitions, an important one called the “Robotics Challenge”, which has been held every year since 2015.

CartMan, the Aussie Picking and Stowing Robot

This year, the Amazon Robotics Challenge was held from the 27th to the 30th of July, as a part of RoboCup 2017, in Nagoya, Japan.

The challenge comprised three stages each related to a specific task: Picking, stowing, and the two tasks combined.

16 robots (mostly robotic arms) from different teams were selected by Amazon to enter the challenge for a prize pool of $250,000 USD.

The Stow Task was won by The team from MIT Princeton, followed in second place by the team from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, which also managed the first place in the Pick Task.

Coming in first-place overall was CartMan, which failed to place in the top three on either picking or stowing tasks. Team ACRV (Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, at Queensland University of Technology in Australia), that designed CartMan, took home the first prize worth $80,000 USD.

The ACRV team believes the “cartesian co-ordinate robot” design of CartMan, unlike arm-like designs of other contestants, was the key to winning the challenge.

Borrowing from 3D printer designs, CartMan, which cost $24,000 USD to build, is a stationary gantry system that can move on three axes above the items, up and down, forward and backward. To handle the desired item, the robot comes with two gripping mechanisms: a suction cup and a two-fingered claw.

Are Amazon’s Warehouses Going to be Fully Automated?

From large robotic arms carrying pallets to small robotic modules to delivery drones, machines are taking an increasing number of roles within Amazon fulfillment services.

Besides the Robotics Challenges that provide answers to some automation problems and fresh ideas, Amazon builds its own robots, currently through Kiva Systems.

Redubbed Amazon Robotics, Kiva Systems is a Boston-based robotics startup that was acquired by Amazon in 2012.

In 2016, around the holiday season, the number of robots deployed in Amazon’s fulfillment centers has increased by no less than 50%. This increase takes the total number to 45,000 robots in 20 fulfillment centers.

The present ratio of human workers to robots is unknown as Amazon didn’t reveal the number of people in its warehouses.

For comparison, in the previous year (2015), there were about 230,000 people working alongside 30,000 robots in 13 fulfillment centers.

Finally, human workers will no longer have to scour miles of aisles, looking for items that hide in plain sight. Now we can focus on the more important tasks.

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