The Washington Post
Robots keep Amazon packages rolling
Warehouse system Pegasus aims to ensure Prime’s one-day delivery
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.