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Are robots finally ready to engage in simple tasks around a busy warehouse? Are humans at risk of losing their jobs to machines that don’t get sick or take breaks?

To find out, Amazon sponsored a robotics competition. The IEEE’s International Conference on Robotics and Automation event in Seattle showcased 31 different machines created by students, tech enthusiasts and active professionals in the industry.

Amazon robotics event

Grasping Objects for $20,000

During the event, robots were required to pick up objects and move them in a box for further processing. The 25 items on the mock warehouse shelf were things that Amazon customers order on a regular basis, such as dog toys, cookies, glasses and books.

Participants were given 20 minutes to complete the round. Judges used a point-based system to gauge how well the robots carried out each task. Teams were rewarded for keeping objects intact. Points were deducted for incorrectly placing, mishandling and dropping a product.

“Our primary sponsor is Los Alamos National Labs, so we do handling of special nuclear materials. But the rubber duck in the plastic bag is proving difficult for our depth sensor to get a handle on,” highlighted Jack Thompson from the University of Texas Austin.

Team RBO Takes the Top Spot

The teams applied several intriguing solutions with hopes to finish the tasks as fast as possible. Some participants used lasers and videos to make the process more accurate. One of the most unique designs came from the University of Tokyo. Led by Kentaro Wada, the group built a modified version of Rethink Robotics’s Baxter. The system used two powerful vacuum cleaners to gently pick up and guide items into the container.

In the end, Team RBO from the Technical University of Berlin came out on top with a staggering 60-point lead from the second place group. Unlike other participants, the team combined a list of robotic components (LIDAR lasers, suctions, tape measures and flexible arms) to safely handle 10 out of 12 objects.

Amazon pick up box

Humans Are Safe for Now

One of the most interesting takeaways from the competition is the time it took for some of the machines to move an object. The robots showed impressive resiliency towards the meticulous tasks at hand, but they were painstakingly slow. Andra Keay from Robohub compared the experience to “watching paint dry”.

Another humbling aspect includes the awkward roadblocks the robots faced while picking up various items on the shelf. As humans, we often forget how much we rely on our hands, fingers, arms and legs to manipulate objects around a room. For robots, the simple act seemed incredibly complex, especially when each step had to be broken down into sets of micro-movements.

Based on the two concerns above, it’s safe to conclude that robots are not yet ready to replace humans in the warehouse.

“We already have over 15,000 robots in our fulfillment centers working alongside our employees,” said Amazon spokesperson Kelly Cheeseman. “These technologies enhance jobs for employees, making them in many cases more efficient. Certainly the role for employees is still vital.”

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