Amazon is getting closer and closer to delivering packages with robots.
The experiments started years ago with Prime Air, a drone delivery program announced years ago. After private trials in the United Kingdom, the program went mysteriously quiet. Notably, Amazon was not selected for a public-private partnership trial overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2018 — while delivery rivals FedEx and UPS were.
In February, The Spoon reported that Amazon had received a patent for an “autonomous delivery vehicle.” These AGVs would be owned by individuals or groups. They would receive instructions from other Amazon delivery vehicles, meet them at the appointed times and places, and return their owners’ packages to them.
Most recently, Amazon began testing Scout, a package delivery robot, north of Seattle. In a promotional video, Scout rolls down a sidewalk on an idyllic, sun-soaked street over lighthearted acoustic guitar music. The delivery robot is almost cute as it stops in front of a pale green house. A woman walks outside, opens the top of the robot, pulls out a package, identifies it as hers, and walks back inside. You can almost imagine her saying “thank you.” Unlike the newly patented AGV, Scout is Amazon-owned and can deliver packages more or less constantly.
The race for robots is on across the industry. It’s not just in delivery, but in fulfillment centers too. Labor is getting more and more expensive as the economy gets stronger and workers demand more pay and better working conditions. E-commerce volumes keep rising, meaning shippers and carriers either need to work employees harder, hire more of them, or both. And human employees are prone to mistakes, especially when they have less and less time to process each item.
Robots would solve a lot of these problems for shipping carriers, including Amazon. Well-developed robot technology could almost eliminate the warehouse workforce. Robots do not need breaks and, generally speaking, make fewer mistakes than people, meaning they could hugely boost warehouse productivity.
Further, the last mile has long been the most inefficient part of package delivery. Replacing humans there — and possibly their gas-guzzling trucks — could make the last mile much cheaper, if not more efficient than it is now.
Amazon’s Warehouse Robots
Reuters reported in May that Amazon had started introducing “CartonWrap” machines in select warehouses. One CartonWrap machine can pack 600 to 700 boxes per hour, up to five times the rate of a human worker. Experts estimate that the robots could replace at least 24 jobs per warehouse — which would be 1,300 workers across the U.S. if they were installed nationwide.
CartonWraps join the machines manufactured by Kiva Systems, which move pallets of inventory within warehouses. The Amazon robot works together with humans — people set items on the robots to be moved.
In 2018, Amazon was issued a patent for a robotic arm that could toss items, seeking to replace “pickers” and “stowers” who put items into and take them out of warehouse bins.
It’s clear that this is the direction Amazon wants to go: eliminating warehouse jobs in favor of other ones. Last year, Amazon announced that it would pay workers up to $10,000 to quit their warehouse jobs and become Delivery Service Partners. The long-term effects of this suggest that Amazon is trying to replace warehouse workers with robots and move the workers out onto delivery routes — where they will eventually be replaced, it seems, with delivery robots.
In the meantime, Amazon is trying to maximize the productivity of its human employees. The Washington Post (which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) reported in May that Amazon is piloting a “gamification” program at five fulfillment centers. The Post reported:
“Developed by Amazon, the games are displayed on small screens at employees’ workstations. As robots wheel giant shelves up to each workstation, lights or screens indicate which item the worker needs to put into a bin. The games can register the completion of the task, which is tracked by scanning devices, and can pit individuals, teams or entire floors in a race to pick or stow Lego sets, cellphone cases or dish soap, for instance. Game-playing employees are rewarded with points, virtual badges and other goodies throughout a shift.”
The company says participating in the game is optional.
The Future of Amazon’s Robots
Amazon is not the only delivery company integrating robots. UPS recently became the first company to complete a commercial delivery via drone, and FedEx has an autonomous same-day delivery robot.
But Amazon is the only company to control so much of its own supply chain. That gives the company unprecedented control over every part of its network, from sales to home delivery. And that gives it all the more reason to try to squeeze cost savings out of warehouses, last-mile delivery, and customer desire for faster and faster delivery.
Automation, in the long term, stands to save package delivery companies a lot of money. It could also make delivery faster and more accurate. It could even be good for workers, by eliminating warehouse jobs that are traditionally stressful and low-paying.
And in a few years, we may all be opening the door for Scout rather than a delivery driver.