February 8, 2023

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Amazon’s new robot, Sparrow, can handle most items in the Everything Store

Amazon built an e-commerce empire by automating much of the work required to move goods and pack orders in its warehouses. There’s still plenty of work for humans to do at these massive facilities, as some tasks are too complex for robots to reliably complete — but a new robot called Sparrow could shift the balance Amazon strikes between humans and machines.

Sparrow is designed to pick out items stacked on shelves or bins so they can be packed into orders for shipment to customers. This is one of the most difficult tasks in storage robotics because there are so many different objects with different shapes, textures, and deformabilities that can be stacked at random. Sparrow addresses this challenge by using machine learning and cameras to identify objects stacked in a bin and plan how to grab one with a custom multi-suction gripper. Amazon demonstrated Sparrow for the first time today at the company’s robotics manufacturing facility in Massachusetts.

Amazon is currently testing Sparrow at a facility in Texas, where the robot is already sorting products for customer orders. The company says Sparrow can handle 65 percent of the more than 100 million items in its inventory. Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, says the most impressive thing about the robot is its range. “Nobody has the inventory like Amazon,” he says. Sparrow can grab DVDs, socks, and stuffed animals, but still struggles with loose or complex packaging.

Manufacturing machines capable of picking a wide range of individual objects with near-human accuracy and speed could transform the economics of e-commerce. A number of robotics companies, including Berkshire Grey, Righthand Robotics and Locus Robotics, are already selling systems that can be used to pick objects in warehouses. The startup Covariant specializes in teaching robots how to handle objects that they have not yet seen at work. But human ability to handle any object reliably and at high speed is beyond the reach of robots. A human can typically pick around 100 items per hour in a warehouse. Brady declined to say how quickly Sparrow can select items, saying the robot is “learning all the time.”

Automating more work in warehouses naturally raises thoughts of the specter of robots displacing humans. Until now, the relationship between robotics and human workers in the workplace has been more complex. For example, Amazon has increased its workforce even as it has introduced more automation as its business has continued to grow. The company seems sensitive to the perception that robots can put people at a disadvantage. At today’s event, the company put the spotlight on employees who had transitioned from low-level jobs to more advanced ones. However, internal data from Reveal suggests that Amazon workers in more automated facilities suffer more injuries because the pace of work is faster. The company has claimed that robotics and other technologies are making its facilities safer.

When asked about labor replacements, Brady said the role of robots is misunderstood. “I don’t see it as a replacement for humans,” he said. “People and machines work together – not people against machines – and if I can enable people to focus on higher-level tasks, that’s the win.”

Robots have become significantly more powerful in recent years, although it can be difficult to separate hype from reality. While Elon Musk and other futuristic humanoid robots are showing many years away from being useful, Amazon has quietly automated much of its operations. The e-commerce company says it now makes more industrial robots a year than any other company in the world.

The use of industrial robots is constantly increasing. In October, the International Federation of Robotics reported that companies around the world installed 517,385 new robots in 2021, a 31 percent increase from the previous year and a new record for the industry. Many of these new machines are either mobile robots, rolling through factories and warehouses transporting goods, or examples of the relatively new concept of “collaborative” robots, designed to work safely alongside humans. Amazon this year introduced its own collaborative robot called Proteus, which drives shelves stacked with products through a warehouse while avoiding human workers.

At its event today, Amazon also demonstrated a new delivery drone called the MK30, which can carry loads of up to 5 pounds. Amazon has tested drone delivery in Lockeford, California, and College Station, Texas, and says the new, more efficient drone will be operational in 2024. The company also unveiled a new Rivian electric delivery vehicle that includes custom safety systems for collision warning and automatic braking, and a system called Fleet Edge that collects street view footage and GPS data to improve the delivery route.