Remember when Amazon only sold books? It’s not easy, considering how much Amazon has grown in the last two decades.
The enormous company is now a necessity in millions of people’s lives around the world. Its name is shorthand for buying just about anything online. Amazon Prime has an estimated 85 million subscribers in the U.S., or about two in three American households.
The Seattle-based company’s reach and ambitions stretch far beyond e-commerce. Amazon is building its own shipping fleet, producing award-winning TV shows, operating thousands of warehouses, offering cloud storage services, and marketing Alexa, one of the leading voice-controlled systems on the market. Many Amazon users have given the company access to their cars or garages so that couriers can deliver packages there.
The latest Amazon initiative to catch our eyes was reported by The Spoon, a website reporting on food technology, in late February.
What are Amazon Robots?
The Spoon found that Amazon had been issued a patent for an “autonomous ground vehicle,” or AGV, “which is basically a robot that sits in waiting at your home and goes and picks up your latest deliveries from a centralized pickup center.”
AGVs could be owned by individuals or serve a group of users, like neighbors in an apartment building or homeowners association, the patent read. The automated delivery robot would be able to receive messages from Amazon delivery vehicles and meet them at specified times and places. Multiple AGVs could meet Amazon’s delivery truck at the same place, with the truck handing out one package after another.
Unlike Amazon’s Scout, this Amazon robot would primarily be responsible for retrieving packages on customers’ behalf, not delivering them for Amazon.
“Gotta give it to Amazon,” The Spoon’s Michael Wolf wrote. “They never stop thinking of ways to get stuff into your house.”
Why is Amazon Creating this Robot?
“Over time,” Amazon wrote in its patent documents, “an increasing frequency and volume of delivery of items from e-commerce and mail-order companies has resulted in an increased need for faster and more efficient delivery methods.”
Translation: Amazon isn’t delivering as much from its warehouses as it would like to at the speed it would like to – so why not recruit the help of autonomous mobile robots to make operations more efficient?
Amazon has already implemented some technology solutions to the problem of last-mile inefficiency. Hub by Amazon was designed so that couriers could drop packages for a whole apartment building in individual lockers in the lobby, or for a whole neighborhood at a shipping-container sized group of lockers. Amazon Key allows couriers to deliver parcels along efficient routes, rather than waiting for customers to be home and doubling back when they aren’t.
AGVs are a further step in this direction. A single driver could leave a warehouse and deliver packages to a single location, where a team of stay-at-home Amazon robots could meet it and pick up parcels. A systemic adoption of AGVs would eliminate human inefficiency almost entirely — AGVs could pick up parcels at any time of day or night, for example.
How Will the Amazon Robot Work?
Amazon’s patent describes a rolling robot that uses sensors and computing hardware to communicate with a remote computing system, which organizes orders and gives the robot basic commands.
The AGV would lock parcels inside itself, in a compartment that could be a small cooler or another special type of compartment depending on need. Customers could retrieve them with a secure code, the way they currently open Amazon Hub lockers.
Amazon even says AGVs could incorporate some elements of Amazon Key technology, opening garage doors or entering homes on their own. The drawings in the patent look similar to Amazon’s Scout robot and Starship Technologies delivery vehicles.
However, it’s important to note that this patent doesn’t mean AGVs will be on the market in two years or even in 10 years. All we know for sure is that Amazon is researching this kind of technology. The long-term effects of that research remain to be seen.
What are the Long-Term Effects of Amazon Robot?
Amazon’s AGV — or the idea for such a delivery robot, anyway — offers a fascinating peek behind the company’s curtain. Not only is the company working on a robot that can deliver packages, but also one that can retrieve them. Scout is an innovative piece of technology, but customers still have to be home when it passes by to collect their packages.
The AGV, like Amazon Key and Hub, shows that Amazon is still thinking about the problem of package security.
Second, this patent shows how deeply Amazon imagines ingraining its services into our homes. Imagine the ecosystem: We could tell Alexa that we need toilet paper, and in a day or two, our Prime robot could meet the delivery vehicle on the corner and bring it back into our garage.
Amazon has made life easier, that’s for sure. But its work on the AGV shows us that the company thinks it can do even more. And if Prime, Prime Video, Kindle, Fire, Web Services, Alexa, and a host of other Amazon offerings are any indication, it won’t be long before we wonder how we ever lived without it.
What Other Automated Initiatives is Amazon Working On?
Earlier this year, Amazon began testing machines intended to box items before they’re sent to customers. The warehouse robots are fully automated and can prepare items 4-5 times faster than humans— around 600-700 boxes per hour. With this kind of efficiency, the automated technology could replace around 1,300 jobs across every Amazon warehouse location, if the company chooses to move forward with installment.
Instead of firing the employees, however, Amazon seems to be making an effort to “re-purpose” them. In May, Amazon announced that it would pay it’s employees $10,000 to quit their jobs and start their own local package-delivery business. With warehouse packaging soon to be job of the past, Amazon is attempting to shift their workers toward delivery initiatives.
What Does this Mean for the Future of Warehouse Automation?
Despite constant movement to replace human workers in the warehouse and delivery sector, Amazon has claimed that fully automated shipping warehouses are most likely a decade away. Although the company has been instrumental in pioneering fully-automated robots and AI has steadily developed a human-like accuracy, the technology is far from perfect. Without the same dexterity and situational understanding as human beings, complete automation is implausible — for now.