Why Robotics Needs Amazon: Analysis From re:MARS Conference

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos tries out a telerobotic hand demonstration at its re:MARS conference. Image Credit: Alan Boyle, GeekWire

June 11, 2019      

LAS VEGAS – At last week’s inaugural re:MARS conference held by Amazon, there was lots of discussion around automation, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and even space. But robotics, at least for me and many attendees, was the highlight of the show. In addition, much of the buzz in the technology showcase and on stage (apart from Robert Downey Jr.’s presence) centered around robots.

Robotics, whether used in the company’s fulfillment centers, last-mile delivery locations, or even in the air through its Prime Air division, is a key component of Amazon’s promise to its customers to deliver two-day, one-day, and even same-day service. That commitment and drive is unlikely to go away, as CEO Jeff Bezos noted in his fireside chat session on the third day of the show. “It’s impossible to imagine that 10 years from now, someone is going to say, ‘Jeff, I love Amazon, I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly. I love Amazon, I just wish the prices were a little higher.’ ”

Interestingly, Amazon’s influence in the robotics space is huge, yet they don’t make a physical robot to sell to customers. Some suggest that its Alexa voice assistant is a robot that doesn’t move, but for the most part they use robotics as part of their core business of delivering other products to customers. Several other technologies, including AI and machine learning, are also used to drive their efforts.

But because they don’t make a physical robot for sale, it doesn’t mean other robotics companies should stop paying attention to what Amazon does. The tech giant’s influence in robotics, automation and AI/ML goes beyond its offerings. Here are several reasons why, along with my takeaways from last week’s event.

1) Amazon practically created the AMR market

With its 2012 purchase of Boston-area robotics company Kiva Systems, Amazon helped create a market place for autonomous mobile robots that help deliver goods within warehouses and distribution centers. Clearly, the purchase was aimed to improve Amazon’s own efficiency and delivery times, and in the seven years since the purchase, Amazon and its Prime service has seen two-day delivery move to one-day and even same-day delivery in some cities/locations.

Suddenly, companies that compete with Amazon in the e-commerce space were left trying to figure out how to improve their own logistics and supply chain issues, or be left in the cold. Fortunately, a multitude of AMR companies, including Locus Robotics, 6 River Systems, Fetch Robotics, inVia Robotics, and others, sprung up to assist third-party logistics companies and retailers with their own operations.

When I speak with many startup companies in this space, I continue to be amazed at how many executives or others within the company have the Kiva Systems pedigree. It’s this legacy that drives the creation of new innovations moving the industry forward.

2) AWS RoboMaker will spur robotics innovation further

Less than a year old, the RoboMaker services from the Amazon Web Services (AWS) division of the company has made waves within the robotics developer community. The company’s ability to leverage its massive cloud services offering gives robotics developers a way to innovate more quickly by providing services such as simulation, access to logs and metrics, to name a few.

Roger Barga Amazon AWS RoboMaker

Roger Barga, Amazon

Interestingly, the RoboMaker project started out as a way to enhance ROS packages that integrate with AWS cloud services, said Roger Barga, general manager of AWS Robotics and Autonomous Services at Amazon. “Some developers look at this with glee because these are such valuable pieces of Lego that they can pull together,” said Barga. “Part of this has been my learning experience to try to understand what challenges they’re facing so I can then connect the dots for them.”

When you think about the entire ecosystem around the AWS services, you start to see things that move beyond just the simulation aspect of RoboMaker – things like tying into video analytics and artificial intelligence, to name a few. The time it can save for developers will end up producing more innovations quicker.

3) Supporting other robot companies

Because of its stature, Amazon was able to attract a host of different robotics and related companies across several different markets, with those at the tech showcase demonstrating how their systems operated with Amazon-enabled technology. For example, iRobot, one of the major sponsors of the show, built a demonstration “home” that included not only its own products (including the very cool Terra robot lawn mower, coming soon), but also other technologies that feature Alexa voice integration. While several of these products also include support for other companies’ voice assistants, it was the Alexa integration on display.

Temi was there showing its personal telepresence mobile robot, showcasing its new Alexa voice integration. While the company had its own voice interface, Temi CEO Danny Isserles said adding Alexa made more sense so it could focus on its strength around the robotics and navigation. “It was very, very clear to us that we are not going to try and compete with Google and Amazon,” said Isserles. “That’s not what we do. We specialize in robotics, in navigation. That’s our specialty. The Temi that we built was more of a platform to demonstrate, to show and expand these abilities. Now, using all that we’ve built, we built the architecture and are connecting that to the voice assistants.”

Amazon re:MARS Shadow Robot Ken Goldberg

Ken Goldberg, from UC Berkeley, tries out the Shadow Robot telerobotic hand application at the Amazon re:MARS event.

Isserles said working with Amazon has been amazing, and his company has been extremely helpful and collaborative. “Obviously, the second we built in Alexa, then [we got] everything that comes with the Alexa. Some things needed tweaks, but most of the things were quite immediate.”

Shadow Robot, which is collaborating with HaptX and SynTouch on a touch-transmitting telerobotic hand, was the hit of the tech showcase, attracting large crowds, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. When he tried on the touch-sensitive, haptic hands and then tele-operated two robotic arms with robotic hands attached to them, he described the experience as “weirdly natural,” Shadow Robot reported.

During Bezos’ visit to the booth, he was able to pick up a plastic cup and drop it onto a stack of other cups. Other tasks at the booth included manipulating a Rubik’s cube, and a ring-stacking toy. In addition to Bezos, other robotics luminaries visited during the show, including keynoter Dr. Ken Goldberg from UC Berkeley and Dr. Erik Nieves, CEO of PlusOne Robotics, which has its own robotic picking application.

4) Continuing to innovate in robotics

As noted earlier, Amazon helped increase its efficiency with the use of mobile autonomous robots, thanks to its Kiva Systems purchase more than seven years ago. But it hasn’t stopped there – the company announced additional robotics systems that it has developed for other areas of its logistics network.

For example, the company’s new Pegasus Drive Sortation solution will be used to transport individual packages to destinations within the company’s middle mile network locations, as a way to reduce the number of incorrect sorts. While most of its Drive units are deployed in fulfillment centers, the Pegasus system will be utilized in the middle part of a package’s journey, connecting the fulfillment centers with its last-mile delivery nodes.

Amazon Robotics re:MARS event

Amazon Robotics showed a new design for its Drive robots, along with a conveyor top system module. Image: Robotics Business Review

The company also showed off new modular drive systems that can include attachments, such as a conveyor belt top that can also be integrated into the Pegasus sortation system. “What that allows us to do is we can put a package on top of the conveyor and we can move at a brisk walking speed with the drive, and that package is going to stay in place,” said Tye Brady, the chief technologist at Amazon Robotics. “We can move that package, whether it’s left or right off of the conveyor top at our sort centers. It’s just another massively parallel system of robots and humans working together.”

Brady said his team is just at the beginning stages of the innovations with robotics. “I’m super proud of the team and how quickly they were able to innovate,” he said. “When you do robotics and you think about what is at the core, the fundamentals of robotics, of how cross-cutting that is to many business areas – for us in particular, it is that fulfillment chain of just how far-reaching robotics will be.”

5) Giving a voice to other robotics endeavors

While many of the robots on display were for business, commercial, or consumer endeavors, the technology showcase also highlighted some groups and companies looking to help people or save the environment.

Robots in Service of the Environment (RSE), a non-profit group that is developing robotic technology to solve environmental problems, used the show to announce its Guardian LF1, Mark 4 undersea robot, which includes a visual recognition system to aid fisherman and tourists in tracking and capturing lionfish in the Atlantic Ocean. The under-$1,000 system is aimed to create a commercially viable option for fishermen to help reduce the lionfish population, which is threatening coral fish and coral reefs in the western Atlantic region.

Robots in Service of the Environment lionfish robot Amazon re:MARS event

The RSE Guardian LF1 robot that helps capture lionfish.

“In order to truly impact the lionfish population there will need to be thousands of robots in the water, capturing the fish wherever they are,” said Erika Angle, RSE co-founder and director of education. “With AI-aided precision fishing, the Guardian LF1 is an effective and easy to use solution to reduce the population of these indiscriminate and voracious predators invading the western Atlantic.”

The group said that the system could capture up to 200 lionfish per day. With the average weight of a single lionfish at 1.25 lbs that can be sold for upwards of $7.99 per pound, a successful day for a commercial fisherman using the system could earn between $1,500 to $2,000 per day, the group said.

Another group in the technology showcase was Robot Care Systems, which developed an interactive and affordable healthcare robot for people with limited mobility. The Lean Empowering Assistant, or LEA, is a walking aid that balances weight and improves stability, but also facilitates daily exercises and can “even ben an energetic dance partner,” the company said. The group has been introducing LEA to physical rehabilitation centers and senior citizen locations across Europe over the last two years.

The mobile robot walker can move to a user after they press a “come to me” button, and other features include video communication with friends and family, and a display that physical therapists can use for specific exercises for target groups. The company was demonstrating in the AWS RoboMaker, having utilized several of its components.

Stay tuned to Robotics Business Review for additional articles and interviews from the Amazon re:MARS conference.