Amazon deploys many more orange robots at warehouses

Amazon.com hires a lot of people. But the expansion of its army of orange-wheeled robots is more than keeping pace.

The world’s largest e-commerce retailer said this past week it has 45,000 robots in some 20 fulfillment centers. That’s a bigger head count than that of the armed forces of the Netherlands, a NATO member, according to World Bank data. It’s also a cool 50 percent increase from last year’s holiday season, when Amazon had some 30,000 robots working alongside 230,000 humans.

We don’t know yet how many people Amazon is employing in the fourth quarter (that number is expected to be disclosed at the company’s earnings call in early 2017), so we can’t exactly compare the growth of the human versus the robotic workforce. But from the fourth quarter of 2015 through the third quarter of 2016, Amazon reported a 46 percent, 12-month increase on average in staffers, not counting temporary recruits.

The bump in Amazon’s robot holdings showcases the company’s love for automation. In 2012 the company bought Kiva Systems, a Boston-area robotics firm that invented the flat, toasterlike warehouse robots that now populate Amazon’s warehouses. There are also other kinds of automata, such as arms that carry pallets.

But most of the stowing and picking of items, which require fine motor skills and discernment, is done by human brains and hands. For now.

Also, if one hears Amazon’s top brass talk about it, the robot army still has much that is experimental about it.

“We’ve changed, again, the automation, the size, the scale many times, and we continue to learn and grow there,” Amazon Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky said of the robots in a conference call last April.

The executive said he couldn’t point to any “general trends” in the adoption of robotics, because some fulfillment centers are clearly “fully outfitted” in robots and “some don’t for economic reasons — maybe the volume’s not perfect for robot volume.”

One thing to keep in mind: Amazon’s experiments with automation extend well beyond the warehouse — into fields like artificial intelligence and computer vision, which have led the company to open a cashierless store in Seattle. In the U.K., Amazon announced its first delivery via automated drone.

Amazon dreams of a ‘super-drone’
Ever-busy Amazon reached into its bag of technology over the past week for another potential development. Scientists at the company have dreamed up a scheme straight out of “Voltron,” a 1980s animated show for kids where several vehicles joined together to form an evil-fighting super-robot. In this case it’s a super-drone.

In a patent filing dated Thursday, the e-commerce giant says it wants to build a “collective” unmanned aerial vehicle by having smaller drones stick together in various configurations. That would allow the super-drone to carry “virtually any size, weight, or quantity of items, travel longer distances, etc.,” the application reads.

The drones can also fly together somewhere, then decouple to make individual deliveries.

The idea would allow Amazon to field just one type of drone, instead of several types in which each is designed to carry different types of packages or travel at various distances.

It’s just another patent from a company that files plenty of them, but it shows how much Amazon is thinking about the drone-delivery program first announced by CEO Jeff Bezos in 2013.

Drones are important to Amazon because their widespread use would allow the company to bring down its last-mile delivery costs from a few dollars to a few cents for each package. The first commercial drone delivery took place this month in the U.K.

The “collective” drone idea follows another interesting scheme depicted in an Amazon patent document published in April: flying warehouses held aloft by blimps.

It would float above a city at 45,000 feet of height, and hold not only thousands of items, but a fleet of drones.

Gravity would make the drones more energy efficient, as they wouldn’t have to power up until they’re close to the ground.

The drones could make their way back to the mothership in a shuttle, accompanied by packages and workers not afraid of heights. It could move to hover over other cities based on demand.

One can only imagine the jungle of actual technological implementation and regulation such a venture would encounter to become reality. So it might remain in the realm of science fiction for a while.

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