Today’s robots are slower than human workers for picking and sorting goods, but retailers and researchers are racing to improve industrial automation. Billions of dollars are potentially at stake in faster order fulfillment.
In a halting step toward that future, Team RBO from the Technical University of Berlin beat 27 competitors to win last week’s Amazon Picking Challenge, as the online retailer awarded $20,000 to advance warehouse automation technology.
The challenge involved picking 12 objects, which varied in size and shape from food packages and pet toys to boxes of office supplies. Robots then needed to put all 12 in bins within 20 minutes without dropping or damaging any, which would result in the deduction of points.
Current material handling robots may be capable of sorting and moving homogenous items, but the logistics industry needs flexibility, dexterity, and speed at least equivalent to that of humans. This requires advanced machine vision and learning, manipulation, mobility, and the software to tie them together. Right now, however, picking robots are still very slow.
The winning combinations
Team RBO used LIDAR lasers for guidance and a sensor and specialized algorithm for object recognition. It also used a combination of three-fingered robotic hands, tape measures for an extendible grasper, and suction mechanisms.
In addition, the winning team used a WAM Arm from Barrett Technology Inc. with seven degrees of freedom, similar to the maneuverability of a human arm. Given the slow progress of robotic manipulation, though, some experts such as Walterio Mayol-Cuevas at the University of Bristol have suggested using handheld robots rather than trying to automate everything.
Robotics challenges abound
The DARPA Robotics Challenge is perhaps the best known, but other major players are offering millions to competing research teams to improve the state of the art in their respective fields. And this is in addition to the rapidly proliferating contests at the high school level.
However, the investment of time and money in contests such as Amazon’s can be problematic, since the more numerous losers may not reach commercialization, and all must divert resources from other efforts.
The Technical University of Berlin spent $6,000 dollars to ship its $250,000 robot to the U.S. The robot got damaged in transit, which could limit its ability to be used for other research. TU Berlin may not even participate in next year’s contest.
“This really got people?s attention, and it’s a cool way to illustrate the state of the art,” said team leader Oliver Brock about Amazon’s contest. “It’s just a big risk for us.”
An XR4000 mobile base from Nomadic Technologies Inc. with four wheels allowed the winning robot to move its arm to the best position for grasping each object, said team leader Roberto Martin-Martin. Team RBO won by a wide margin, with 148 points.
A team including students from MIT and Worcester Polytechnic Institute placed second in the contest, with 88 points. It used a robotic arm from ABB. Team Grizzly, which included students and alumni from Oakland University and used a Baxter from Rethink Robotics, placed third with 35 points.
Pickers might join Kiva’s systems
Amazon has already been using robots from Kiva Systems LLC, which it acquired for $775 million in 2012 and plans to rename “Amazon Robotics,” to move shelves of goods to human pickers, but its ultimate goal is order-fulfillment centers that are mostly automated. This would relieve the tedium and costs of human staffers, but it would also significantly reduce the number of warehousing jobs.
During the holiday rush, Amazon reportedly adds 80,000 seasonal workers to its 50,000 warehouse staffers. It plans to hire 6,000 more people. Full-time employees average $26,000 per year, and Amazon is already using more than 15,000 of Kiva’s robots.
More on mobile and supply chain robotics
In recent holiday seasons, UPS and FedEx had problems keeping up with orders, and consumers and retailers increasingly expect faster deliveries as commerce continues moving online. Delays have also prompted companies such as Wal-Mart to try to shorten their supply chains, and Amazon’s plan for aerial drones to deliver packages initially stirred controversy.
Amazon announced the contest winner at the IEEE‘s International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Seattle. ICRA is held every three years. It’s not clear whether the company will buy technologies from the winners or have Amazon Robotics further develop them.