How Warehouse Robots Actually Work, As Explained By Amazon

Amazon has been using robots to manage and automate their warehouses for years. Here’s a short feature on their current robot, Hercules. This is absolutely Amazon tooting their own horn, but if you have been curious about what exactly such robots do, and how exactly they help a busy warehouse work better, it’s a good summary with some technical details.

Amazon claims to have over 750,000 robots across their network.

The main idea is that goods are stored on four-sided shelves called pods. Hercules can scoot underneath to lift and move these pods a little like a robotic forklift, except much smaller and more nimble. Interestingly, the robots avoid rotating shelves as much as possible and are designed to facilitate this. To change direction, Hercules sets the pod down, turns, then picks the pod back up.

The overall system is centralized, but Hercules itself navigates autonomously thanks to a depth-sensing camera and a grid of navigation markers present on the floor throughout the facility.  Hercules also can wirelessly sense and communicate with nearby human-worn vests and other robots outside its line of sight.

Essentially, instead of human workers walking up and down aisles of shelves to pick products, the product shelves come to the humans. This means the organization and layout of the shelves themselves can be dynamic, higher density, and optimized for efficient robotic access. Shelves do not need to be in fixed rows or aisles, conform to a human-readable categorical layout, nor do they necessarily need walking space between them.

Sometimes robots really are the right tool for the job, and our favorite product-retrieval robot remains [Cliff Stoll]’s crawlspace warehouse bot, a diminutive device made to access boxes of product — in [Cliff]’s case, Klein bottles — stored in an otherwise quite claustrophobic crawlspace.

Boston Dynamics Stretch Robot Trades Lab Coat For Work Uniform

Boston Dynamics has always built robots with agility few others could match. While great for attention-getting demos, from outside the company it hasn’t been clear how they’ll translate acrobatic skills into revenue. Now we’re getting a peek at a plan in an interview with IEEE Spectrum about their new robot Stretch.

Most Boston Dynamics robots have been research projects, too expensive and not designed for mass production. The closest we got to date was Spot, which was offered for sale and picked up a few high profile jobs like inspecting SpaceX test sites. But Spot was still pretty experimental without an explicit application. In contrast, Stretch has a laser-sharp focus made clear by its official product page: this robot will be looking for warehouse jobs. Specifically, Stretch is designed to handle boxes up to 50 lbs (23 kg). Loading and unloading them, to and from pallets, conveyer belts, trucks, or shipping containers. These jobs are repetitive and tedious back-breaking work with a high injury rate, a perfect opportunity for robots.

But warehouse logistics aren’t as tightly structured as factory automation, demanding more adaptability than typical industrial robots can offer. A niche Boston Dynamics learned it can fill after releasing an earlier demo video showing their research robot Atlas moving some boxes around: they started receiving inquiries into how much that would cost. Atlas is not a product, but wheels were set in motion leading to their Handle robot. Learning from what Handle did well (and not well) in a warehouse environment, the designed evolved to today’s Stretch. The ostrich-like Handle prototype is now relegated to further research into wheeled-legged robots and the occasional fun dance video.

The Stretch preproduction prototypes visible in these videos lacks acrobatic flair of its predecessors, but they still have the perception and planning smarts that made those robots possible. Those skills are just being applied to a narrower problem scope. Once production models are on the job, we look forward to reading some work performance reviews.

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Help Save Some Of Australia’s Computer History From The Bulldozers

When multiple tipsters write in to tell us about a story, we can tell it’s an important one. This morning we’ve received word that the holding warehouse of the Australian Computer Museum Society in the Sydney suburb of Villawood is to be imminently demolished, and they urgently need to save the artifacts contained within it. They need Aussies with spare storage capacity of decent size to help them keep and store the collection, and they only have a few days during which to do so.

The ever-effusive Dave from EEVblog has posted a video in which he takes a tour, and like us he’s continually exclaiming over the items he finds. An EAI analog computer, a full set of DEC PDP-11 technical documentation, a huge Intel development system, Tektronix printers, huge DEC racks, memory cards for VAXen, piles and piles of boxes of documentation, and much, much more.

So, if you are an Aussie within reach of Sydney who happens to have a currently-unused warehouse, barn, or industrial unit that could house some of this stuff, get in touch with them quickly. Some of it may well be junk, but within that treasure trove undoubtedly lies a lot of things that need to be saved. We’d be down there ourselves, but are sadly on the other side of the world.

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Mindstorms Forkliftbots Gonna Take Your Job

With every advance in robotics, we get closer to being able to order stuff from Amazon and have no human being participate in its delivery. Key step in this dream: warehouse robots, smart forklifts able to control and inventory and entire warehouse full of pallets, without the meat community getting involved. [Thomas Risager] designed just such a system as part of his Masters Thesis in Software Engineering. It consists of five LEGO Mindstorms robots working in concert (video embedded below), linked via WiFi to a central laptop. Mindstorms’ native OS doesn’t support WiFi (!!!) so he reflashed the EV3’s ARM9 chip with software developed using Java and running under LeJOS. On the laptop side [Thomas] wrote a C++ application that handles the coordination and routing of the forklifts. We can see a lot of weary forklift drivers ready to kick back and let a robot have the full-time job for a change.

The robots use WiFi to a central laptop. Mindstorms’ native OS doesn’t support WiFi (!!!) so [Thomas] reflashed the EV3’s ARM9 chip with software developed using Java and running under LeJOS. On the laptop side he wrote a C++ application that handles the coordination and routing of the forklifts. [Thomas] is sharing his forklift design.

Now to scale up — maybe with DIY forklifts like we published earlier? We can see a lot of weary forklift drivers ready to kick back and let a robot have the full-time job for a change.

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Crawlspace Warehouse Includes Midget Forklift

Meet [Cliff Stoll], producer and entrepreneur-extraordinaire of the ACME Klein Bottles. Years back he helped a friend program a glass oven to get the right temperature profiles for glass blowing. When asked how he wanted to get paid for his help, he asked if they could blow a Klein bottle — and so they did.

Excited at the prospect of his creation, he showed it around to some friends, and was surprised to find out that people wanted to buy it! The one he created took 3 days of sweat and tears to build, so he wasn’t about to start manufacturing them himself. Instead, he decided to call around to some glass manufacturers and see how much he could get Klein bottles made for… That’s when he discovered the power of buying in large quantities.

So what do you do with over 1000 Klein bottles? You build a mini-warehouse in your crawlspace — that’s what.

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Hackerspace Intro: Make Lehigh Valley


The video tour of Make Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania involves mostly a show-and-tell about the raw materials just waiting to find their way into members’ projects. The tour starts off outside the warehouse that house the hackerspace as well as an associated business incubator called Hive 4A. It then moves inside to give us a look at what they’ve got going on.

We love the space. There are really two kinds of buildings we see used in these tours. One type are commercial retail spaces, like HeatSync Labs or Workshop 88. They’re clean, well-lit, and in the public view. This is the other kind, behind closed doors and full or floor-space. The building features a really awesome wide-plank wooden floor. It plays host to a smattering of different equipment and a multitude of boxes, jars, troughs, and jugs full of all kinds of stuff. It looks like they’re beginning to get the parts organization under control. Old milk jugs serve as a first round of sorting. There’s also a nice little small parts rack built from plastic tea bottles and small cubby holes made of cardboard. See it all in the clip after the break.

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