The Washington Post

Ro­bots keep Ama­zon pack­ages rolling

Ware­house sys­tem Pe­ga­sus aims to en­sure Prime’s one-day de­liv­ery

- ON I.T. BY PE­TER HOLLEY pe­ter.holley@wash­ Business · Tech · Amazon · Jeffrey Bezos · Washington State · Las Vegas · Amazon Prime · United States of America · Boston · Robots · Roboethics · Denver

The sprawl­ing ware­house, which looks big enough to dou­ble as an air­port hangar, is unof­fi­cially known as the “ro­bot high­way.”

In­side Ama­zon’s Denver sort­ing cen­ter, an army of or­ange ro­bots — each one about the size of a large suit­case with a small con­veyor belt on top — glides across the con­crete floor, pick­ing up and mov­ing pack­ages to one of hun­dreds of chutes that or­ga­nize items by Zip code be­fore they’re shipped to cus­tomers.

Though largely un­known to the out­side world, the ro­bots known as Pe­ga­sus have logged more than 1.5 mil­lion miles of driv­ing, ac­cord­ing to an Ama­zon blog post de­scrib­ing work in­side the ware­house. (Ama­zon founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Jeff Be­zos owns The Wash­ing­ton Post.)

Ama­zon un­veiled Pe­ga­sus dur­ing the key­note ses­sion at its first-ever re:MARS con­fer­ence in Las Ve­gas last week, de­voted to, in Ama­zon’s words, “Ma­chine Learn­ing, Au­to­ma­tion, Ro­bot­ics, and Space.” It was there that Ama­zon re­vealed that the com­pany has 200,000 ro­bots work­ing at dozens of distri­bu­tion fa­cil­i­ties around the world.

Ac­cord­ing to GeekWire, Ama­zon ro­bot­ics vice pres­i­dent Brad Porter said: “We sort bil­lions of pack­ages a year. The chal­lenge in pack­age sor­ta­tion is, how do you do it quickly and ac­cu­rately?

“In a world of Prime one-day [de­liv­ery], ac­cu­racy is su­per im­por­tant,” Porter added. “If you drop a pack­age off a con­veyor, lose track of it for a few hours — or worse, you [sort] it to the wrong des­ti­na­tion, or even worse, if you drop it and dam­age the pack­age and the in­ven­tory in­side — we can’t make that cus­tomer prom­ise any­more.”

Ama­zon said it has 40 sort­ing cen­ters around the world, though Pe­ga­sus tech­nol­ogy is op­er­at­ing in only a few of those. The com­pany said it plans to in­tro­duce the ma­chines to more cen­ters.

De­spite be­ing home to about 800 wheeled ro­bots, the ware­house re­lies on hu­man work­ers, ac­cord­ing to Ama­zon. Asked how many peo­ple are work­ing in sort­ing fa­cil­i­ties like the Denver ware­house, Ama­zon said it’s tough to give a pre­cise num­ber. The count varies, de­pend­ing on sea­son and lo­ca­tion.

The com­pany also said it’s dif­fi­cult to pro­vide the num­ber of work­ers at the ware­houses with­out ro­bots.

Ama­zon said the com­pany is still hir­ing peo­ple for cen­ters where ro­bots are op­er­at­ing and will con­tinue to do so. Hu­man jobs in­clude area man­agers, main­te­nance tech­ni­cians, safety engi­neers and “amnesty work­ers,” who are trained to go onto the floor to fix a ro­bot or re­trieve stray pack­ages.

The Denver sort­ing cen­ter is man­aged by five “flow con­trol spe­cial­ists” who rely on soft­ware to over­see in­bound and out­bound pack­ages, the com­pany said.

The de­liv­ery process begins when a ro­bot ar­rives at a sta­tion where a hu­man as­so­ciate scans a pack­age and places it on top of the ma­chine, ac­cord­ing to Ama­zon. Once the ro­bot takes off, fol­low­ing a pro­grammed route, on­board cam­eras help the ro­bot avoid ob­sta­cles as it moves to­ward a chute, a jour­ney that takes about two min­utes.

The traf­fic is mon­i­tored by the Kin­dle-equipped flow con­trol spe­cial­ists, who can ac­cess re­al­time in­for­ma­tion about the fluc­tu­at­ing vol­ume of pack­ages mov­ing through the build­ing, ac­cord­ing to Ama­zon. The work­ers can iden­tify con­ges­tion ar­eas in the ware­house or spot ro­bot mal­func­tions, said Cathryn Kachura, a spe­cial­ist who refers to the ma­chines as “her ba­bies” in an Ama­zon video in which she dis­cusses her job re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

“If you had told 10-year-old me that my job would re­volve around ro­bots ev­ery day, there’s no way I would have be­lieved you,” Kachura said.

Ama­zon plans to con­tinue adding ro­bots to other U.S. sort­ing cen­ters this year, but it isn’t the only com­pany to of­fer a glimpse of ro­bots han­dling pack­ages.

In March, Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics re­leased footage of a wheeled emu-like ro­bot glid­ing across a ware­house floor with ease, demon­strat­ing its abil­ity to pick up and move large boxes us­ing what ap­pear to be suc­tion cups at the end of a long neck.

At 6 feet tall and 231 pounds, the ma­chine known as “Han­dle” was de­signed to carry up to 33 pounds while ma­neu­ver­ing in tight spa­ces, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany. The ro­bot first ap­peared on­line, in a dif­fer­ent form, about two years ago.

 ?? MARK LENNIHAN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS ?? Dur­ing its re:MARS con­fer­ence in Las Ve­gas last week, Ama­zon un­veiled a ro­botic pack­age-han­dling sys­tem used in some of its ware­houses. Ad­di­tional ro­bots and peo­ple are ex­pected to join the en­deavor.
MARK LENNIHAN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS Dur­ing its re:MARS con­fer­ence in Las Ve­gas last week, Ama­zon un­veiled a ro­botic pack­age-han­dling sys­tem used in some of its ware­houses. Ad­di­tional ro­bots and peo­ple are ex­pected to join the en­deavor.
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