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Amazon’s new warehouse robot can handle individual products

Amazon’s new warehouse robot can handle individual products


Until now, Amazon’s warehouse robots focused on moving around already-boxed products, requiring humans to put things in boxes.

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Picture of Amazon’s Sparrow robot, picking up what appears to be a towel or cloth.
Unlike Amazon’s other robots, Sparrow doesn’t need items to be boxed before it can move them.
Image: Amazon

Amazon has announced a new robot, dubbed Sparrow, which the company says is its first warehouse robot that can “detect, select, and handle individual products.” The company says the machine is capable of recognizing and handling “millions of items” and that it will reduce the repetitive tasks its human workers have to do.

The company’s post announcing the robot doesn’t say exactly how it plans to use Sparrow, but it’s not hard to imagine many more applications for something that can lift and move individual products in Amazon’s warehouses.

“In our current research and development efforts, we are working with Sparrow to consolidate inventory before it is packaged for customers,” said Xavier Van Chau, a spokesperson for the company, “but the possible applications of this technology in our operations is much broader.”

Van Chau also told The Verge that Amazon isn’t currently rolling Sparrow out to warehouses en masse: “Sparrow is currently in research and development and we are actively testing it in our operations. We’re excited by the progress we’re seeing but there are a lot of factors that we consider before deploying these technologies at scale.”

Amazon has focused heavily on robotization as reports about the work safety conditions in its warehouses continue to paint an unsettling picture and as the company faces a dwindling pool of workers. A leaked memo from earlier this year warned that Amazon may be rapidly running out of people to hire in some locations. In June, the company announced a new set of robots, including the fully autonomous Proteus, which is designed to move large shelves of products around the warehouse, and Cardinal, a robotic arm for picking up and moving packages that weigh up to 50 pounds.

Robots and humans, working together?

Amazon has maintained that its robots aren’t replacing human jobs. The company’s news post celebrating 10 years of Amazon robotics specifically addressed that idea, saying that the company’s goal is to get robots and humans “working safely and harmoniously together to deliver for our customers.” Tye Brady, chief technologist for Amazon Robotics, predicted that ditching humans for robots would probably put the company out of business when speaking to Forbes in June.

Thursday’s post also addressed those concerns but with a slightly different tone. The post points out all the jobs that have been created to design and deploy robots at the company and promises that the company will help employees “transition and advance their career into roles working with our technology.” To that end, the post highlights Amazon’s apprenticeship program, which is meant to teach workers how to maintain the robotic systems.