Amazon Technologies Inc. was awarded a patent this week for a Mobile Configurable Conveyor Component, according to a posting by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Originally filed in March 2017, the application indicates a mobile conveyor system that can sort and transport products. It could also reconfigure quickly for warehouses, supply chain distribution centers, and manufacturing operations.
According to the posting, the device includes a conveyor on top of a mobile robot with docking heads on each side. A conveyor controller on the first device communicates signals to a conveyor controller on the second device, signaling instructions to the motor on the second mobile conveyor. Amazon’s application was a continuation of a previous patent, filed on Dec. 16, 2014.
In its filing, Amazon said that “existing inventory systems, such as those in mail-order warehouses, supply chain distribution centers, airport luggage systems, and custom-order manufacturing facilities, etc., can encounter challenges in responding to requests for inventory items.”
As the systems grow or are asked to respond to large numbers of inventory requests, “inefficient utilization of system resources, including space, equipment, and manpower, can result in lower throughput, longer response times, an increasing backlog of unfinished tasks, and overall lower system performance,” the filing said.
Making changes to existing infrastructure and equipment can become “prohibitively expensive, and thus, limit the ability of the system to accommodate changes in system throughput,” the company added.
To address this, Amazon’s filing indicates that “mobile robotic devices may be configured with conveyor components,” with conveyor-belt segments that can travel various distances of the workspace to reach other portions of the workspace.
“Each mobile robotic device is configured to removably attach or dock to a frame of a conveyor component so that the mobile robotic device can transport such a conveyor component throughout the workspace,” the filing stated.
Is Your Warehouse Ready for Robots?Learn how robots are transforming warehouses. This download will help you evaluate your existing warehouse operations and prepare to successfully deploy logistics robots.
|Download Your Free Guide|
Multiple devices can then create a larger conveyor system that can become mobile or be placed in other locations.
“Such locations may include a location where a vehicle may load/unload inventory items or objects, a location where inventory items are stored, a location where inventory items are stored, a location where inventory items may be further handled by a worker, etc.,” the filing stated.
In addition, multiple devices that form a longer conveyor segment can be placed in the workspace with other mobile devices that form another longer conveyor segment, creating multiple segments that can be placed adjacent or close to one another.
Rotating head on mobile conveyor allows for product sorting
The device also may include a rotating head “that enables the mobile robotic device to rotate an attached conveyor component along an axis relative to the mobile robotic device,” the filing stated. “As inventory items travel along one or more conveyor segments, a given mobile robotic device can be controlled or instructed to rotate its attached conveyor component using its rotating head and, as a result, enabling sortation of the inventory item by changing the direction in which the inventory items are moving in the workspace.”
A centralized management module would provide instructions to the mobile conveyors and/or the conveyor attachments. The module would give them tasks such as docking to a conveyor, moving their attachments to various positions in the workspace, or connecting to other mobile robots.
The mobile conveyor concept seems similar to one developed by Fetch Robotics, which in April announced the expansion of its VirtualConveyor system with its CartConnect and RollerTop robots.
The CartConnect systems let mobile robots “pick up, transport and drop off delivery warehouse carts to any warehouse or manufacturing location,” and then move on to its next delivery task, said Fetch. The RollerTop robots are designed to “dependably hand off or receive material from fixed conveyance.”
The awarding of the patent doesn’t necessarily mean that Amazon plans on creating a product around this concept. Amazon has been awarded several patents for different technology concepts, including floating warehouses, underground tunnel systems, and voice-controlled pocket drones.
It’s also possible that Amazon could use the devices for its own warehouses, similar to what it did when it purchased Kiva Systems in 2012 and took those mobile robots off the market.
The mobile conveyor patent was one of several patents Amazon was awarded on July 3, 2018. Other patents include concepts such as customized retail packaging for shipments, a modular lidar system, and determining the location or position of a portable electronic device.
The complete patent application from Amazon can be viewed/downloaded here.
An Amazon spokeswoman reached for comment by Robotics Business Review said the company doesn’t comment on rumor or speculation.