Amazon is building robots at scale in Massachusetts

NOV 14, 2022

Amazon has built a fleet of robots to help workers get packages from its warehouses to your door, and on Thursday it showed off two new ones. The first is Sparrow, a machine designed to pick up items (not packages) from a container and place them in a different container. The second is a concept for a new delivery drone called the MK30.

Amazon invited the press to visit its BOS27 robot innovation facility on Thursday so it could demonstrate progress in several different areas of its robotics and logistics business. And I have to say, it was damned impressive.

Amazon’s Hercules robots coming off the manufacturing line. Image courtesy of S. Higginbotham.

Amazon can make up to 1,000 robots every day on 10 manufacturing lines located in the Boston area, at two different facilities. The one I visited contains six of those lines, and includes both the ubiquitous robot arms people tend to picture when thinking about industrial robots as well as the floor-hugging robots that are used to deliver shelves’ worth of packages around a warehouse floor. Amazon makes the floor-hugging robots on the manufacturing lines and assembles the robot arms, which are made by another company.

As much as I enjoy a factory tour, Amazon didn’t offer a lot of information about its automation. I did learn that it uses Wi-Fi throughout the factory I visited, including to send information to its robots. It’s also one of the quietest factories I’ve ever been to, and when lunchtime rolled around production stopped entirely, which I took to mean that Amazon has room to scale it up.

As for the new robots, the Sparrow robot uses a robotic arm designed by a different company, but with a newly designed arm head that uses suction to pick up individual items from one crate and place them into another. Sparrow actually represents huge innovation in computer vision and manipulation compared to Amazon’s other robotic arm system called Cardinal. Amazon plans to roll out Cardinal at scale next year. Sparrow, which is still in development, uses suction to pick up packages, identify them, check them for quality, and then place them in the appropriate crate. I saw Cardinal, which can handle the 15-to-19 different-sized Amazon packages the retailer uses to ship goods, in action as well. It was impressive, but not Sparrow-level impressive.

Sparrow is designed to pick out individual items to place into packages. It can recognize about 65% of Amazon’s more than 100 million items in stock and pack them efficiently in a crate. But while recognizing that many more items is a feat of computer vision (and barcodes), the real challenge was designing an arm head (think of it like the robot’s hand) that can manipulate such a large variety of objects.

There are four different tubes on the arm head that can vary in length to adapt to the shape of the item, suctioning it gently to lift it from the conveyer belt and place it into a crate. It can adjust from picking up a tube of Preparation H to a giant plastic bag of spices. The version I saw had about a dozen sensors as part of the system, but Amazon plans to reduce that as it develops Sparrow into a robot designed for use at all of its warehouses.

I also saw Amazon’s new Proteus robot, which rolls around the floor carrying tall racks of boxes. The robot resembles the Hercules robots in the picture above, but is painted bright green and has a face made of LED lights.

Proteus is Amazon’s first autonomous mobile robot, which means it can navigate the factory floor on its own and do so with humans in the mix. Whereas the Hercules robots move in a grid, and are guided by bar codes on the factory floor and software that tells them which bar code to drive to, Proteus navigates its environment using an array of sensors that helps it avoid items and people. Amazon plans to operate Proteus in areas like loading docks, replacing people tasked with moving large carts that can weigh up to 800 pounds.

Right now, automated warehouses are segmented into areas where robots are working and those where people are working. With a robot like Proteus, those two worlds can merge, opening up more places for robots to take over difficult jobs.

As an aside, Amazon is clearly pushing hard against the narrative that robots will take human jobs. Roughly a third of each of the half dozen presentations was spent focused on people: the people building the robots, the jobs created for people by Amazon’s robot-building programs, and the ability of robots to take on harmful jobs that actively injure people. The skeptic in me thinks Amazon protests too much.

And of course, this wouldn’t be an Amazon story if it didn’t come with a handful of relative statistics, so here they are. Amazon uses robots in more than 300 facilities around the globe and about 75% of Amazon customer orders are handled in part by robots. Amazon has also created more than 700 new job categories within the company as a result of its robotics program.

The MK27-2 drone has a hexagonal design for more stability in varying wind conditions and redesigned propellers to reduce high-frequency noise. Image courtesy of S. Higginbotham.

Finally, before I sign off, let me tell you a bit about the new Amazon drone, the MK30. We only saw a rendering, but Amazon did have it MK27-2 drone, which you’ll see if you scroll down this newsletter. The MK27-2 has a hexagonal design, which boosts its stability when flying in various wind conditions, as well as a specially designed propeller to reduce that high-pitched noise people associate with drones. It will be used to deliver 5-pound packages in College Station, Tex. and Lockeford, Calif.

Delivery areas need to have at least a 5-meter radius of open space and be relatively flat. And today’s drones can’t fly in inclement weather, which limits them to suburban spaces and places with specific population densities so Amazon complies with Federal Aviation Rules about drones flying over populated areas. However, David Carbon, VP of Prime Air, says the upcoming MK30 could fly in some rain and will have a smaller landing radius.

That drone and the ones that come after it are designed to help Amazon reach its goal of delivering half a billion packages via drone by the end of this decade. With that goal, Amazon really is shooting for the sky.