What just happened? Amazon has a long history of creating robots not only for consumers but also for its many warehouses around the world. Its latest machine is another that falls into the latter category, and it has the distinction of being the company's first "fully autonomous" warehouse robot, one that doesn't have to be caged off from human workers when operating.
Amazon this week announced Proteus, a warehouse robot that, unlike its previous autonomous machines, can operate without needing to be confined to a warehouse's restricted (i.e., caged off) areas.
The tech giant says Proteus uses advanced safety, perception, and navigation technology developed by Amazon to automatically avoid human employees as it moves around a warehouse performing its duties, which includes lifting and moving GoCarts—the large, wheeled cages used to hold items–from one area of a facility to another. The video suggests Proteus fires a green beam in front of itself, stopping whenever a human breaks said beam.
Proteus will initially be deployed in the outbound GoCart handling areas of Amazon fulfillment and sort centers. The company said the robots would reduce the need for people to manually move heavy objects and allow them to "focus on more rewarding work" instead—whatever that might be.
"From the early days of the Kiva acquisition, our vision was never tied to a binary decision of people or technology. Instead, it was about people and technology working safely and harmoniously together to deliver for our customers," Amazon wrote.
While Amazon tends to claim its robots are a benefit to the human warehouse workers, Reveal leaked internal data in 2020 that showed facilities without robots had lower rates of injury than those that used the machines. It's also believed that robotic warehouses have higher production quotas.
As is always the case with automation, the increased autonomy of Amazon's warehouse robots brings with it fears of more machines taking human jobs. But according to a leaked memo from last year, Amazon could run out of people to hire in its US warehouses by 2024, a scenario that would likely increase its reliance on robots even further.