Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future

NEW YORK (AFP) – Hundreds of orange robots zoom and whiz back and forth like miniature bumper cars – but instead of colliding, they’re following a carefully plotted path to transport thousands of items ordered from online giant Amazon.

A young woman fitted out in a red safety vest, with pouches full of sensors and radio transmitters on her belt and a tablet in hand, moves through their complicated choreography.

This robot ballet takes place at the new Amazon order fulfillment centre that opened on Staten Island in New York in September.

In an 80,000 square-metre space filled with the whirring sounds of machinery, the Seattle-based e-commerce titan has deployed some of the most advanced instruments in the rapidly growing field of robots capable of collaborating with humans.

The high-tech vest, worn at Amazon warehouses since last year, is key to the whole operation – it allows 21-year-old Deasahni Bernard to safely enter the robot area, to pick up an object that has fallen off its automated host, for example, or check if a battery needs replacing.

A subway is seen in front of skyscrapers in Long Island City in the Queens borough of New York City. – AFP

Bernard only has to press a button and the robots stop or slow or readjust their dance to accommodate her.

Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centres, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates.

“What used to take more than a day now takes less than an hour,” he said, explaining they are able to fit about 40 per cent more goods inside the same footprint.

For some, these fulfillment centres, which have helped cement Amazon’s dominant position in global online sales, are a perfect illustration of the looming risk of humans being pushed out of certain business equations in favor of artificial intelligence.

But Brady argues that robot-human collaboration at the Staten Island facility, which employs more than 2,000 people, has given them a “beautiful edge” over the competition.

Bernard, who was a supermarket cashier before starting at Amazon, agrees.

“I like this a lot better than my previous jobs,” she told AFP, as Brady looked on approvingly.